Looking devastation squarely in the eye
“How can we be brave enough not to look away?” These were the words that writer and thought leader Beth Amato asked on Facebook after yet another tragic loss was announced in the midst of this savage third wave.
With all the suffering, the growing despair, the loss of so much life, and the poverty, she was asking about our courage to bear it all, to “see” what’s happening. At times, the immense losses and despair feel like too much. And yet, as humans, how dare we turn away from the horror we see unfolding?
In the fifth chapter of Tractate Gittin in the Babylonian Talmud, we find a number of aggadata (stories) which recount the destruction of Jerusalem, Betar, and the Temple. Indeed, the rabbis wrote searing accounts of that time. They had the courage “not to look away”. Yet, the stories aren’t only about the rivers that run red with the blood of the Jewish people, the devastation is also described in terms of the loss of daily rites of passage, the blows dealt to communal life.
In one story, we are told that when a Jewish bride and groom would walk towards their chuppah, it was customary for a rooster and a hen to be included in the procession as a positive omen for procreation. One time, a Roman troop came upon a Jewish wedding procession, and stole the fowl pair. Enraged, the Jewish community attacked the troop of Romans, provoking the Roman emperor to bring an onslaught on the Jewish people.
A further story recounts that trees were planted upon the birth of every Jewish boy and girl. When they got married, boughs from these trees would be intertwined to build the chuppah, symbolic of the bride and groom’s intertwinement. One time, the emperor’s daughter was passing by a grove of these trees when her carriage broke. Her soldiers hacked down one of the trees in order to replace the shaft. The Jewish people were so angered, they attacked the daughter’s attendants, leading the emperor to attack Betar.
If the Ninth of Av is linked in our minds to the destruction of the Temple, here we read that it’s also about desecration of the precious traditions that enriched the daily lives of the Jewish people – chickens and roosters at a wedding, cedar and cypress trees at births.
It’s hard to quantify loss in a pandemic. On one level, if we are alive and healthy, we might whisper dayeinu, and thank G-d for our fundamental existence. Yet, as these stories teach us, life is made up of more than mere survival.
During this pandemic, we have been robbed of the experience of living on all levels: weddings and B’neimitzvah are postponed, a simple birthday which a child anticipates all year around is celebrated on Zoom, we are denied our usual rites to comfort the mourner, and our Jewish holidays are celebrated alone.
As with these aggadata, we can affirm that the loss of a tree or a rooster, a school play, or a long-anticipated birthday party are part of this suffering and part of this story.
As we move into the heart of these stories of killing and destruction, the rabbis recall how in an act of deep perversity, Romans compelled Jewish children to watch while they engaged in sexual relations. Again, the horror feels too much to witness.
Yet, we read of a story where two children who are forced to watch this degradation open their mouths and speak. Their response is surprising, they turn to text. One of them says to the other, “Where is this terribleness written in our Torah?” The pathos of the question is felt keenly. The child is both protesting this suffering and seeking to draw some meaning from it. The other child responds, “It is written about in Devarim.” The first child then responds, “Why haven’t I reached that sentence yet?”, to which the second child responds, “You are one and a half pages away.” The first child then responds, “I’m glad I haven’t reached it yet because had I reached it, I wouldn’t have needed you to answer the question.”
At the pinnacle of their despair and humiliation, these children turn to the ageless Jewish practice of Torah learning and chavruta (friendship). The first child asks a quintessentially Jewish question about meaning-making: “Where is this written?” The Romans incorporate the Jewish children in a perverse sexual relationship, enacting the very antithesis of connection and ethical relatedness.
Yet, in the midst of that evil, the two children remember the perennial Jewish practice of meaning-making through text and chevruta. Theirs is a profound form of protest and hope in the middle of despair.
Wherever we are, we have the capacity for consciousness and connection. I like to imagine that as the rabbis recounted this story, they too felt a shift. They were “seeing” the devastation of this time with unflinching courage. And at this moment, like the children, they recalled that as humans, we can seek meaning, as humans we have each other. Even now, all isn’t lost.
What these stories seem to teach is that the courage to look suffering in the eye is the very place from which hope can emerge. In mourning our losses and crying our sense that the world we once knew is gone, we begin the process of dreaming and re-building. Richard Tarnas writes that hope isn’t a flimsy rainbow-in-the-sky experience. Rather, hope is a spiritual discipline.
What’s more, when we engage in the spiritual practice of hope, we’re no longer victims to the whims of history. Hope allows us to become participatory actors in the unfolding of reality. The Jewish people have always embodied hope as a spiritual practice. We look at suffering on Tisha B’Av squarely in the eye, and from that place, we remember Torah study and relationships, we remember who we were, are, and who we can become.
We will come out of this wave, and this time, as the Jewish people and humanity, we will pray and dance together, we will learn and we will befriend. Nachamu, nachamu, ami (Take comfort, oh my people).
- Adina Roth is a clinical psychologist in private practice, and a teacher of Jewish Studies. She runs an independent Barmitzvah and Batmitzvah programme in Johannesburg, and teaches Tanach to adults.
In the race against COVID-19, vaccination just the first lap
About 200 years ago, the Torah giant, the Tiferet Yisrael (Rabbi Israel Lifshitz – 1782 to 1860) exhorted his followers to be vaccinated against smallpox. The sage was meticulous in fulfilling the mitzvah aseh (positive commandment) of the obligation to avoid the much greater threat to life posed by the disease even if the vaccine itself was far from harmless. In those years, smallpox vaccination was a rather hazardous procedure coming with a mortality of close to 1:1000.
It has been ascribed to the Tiferet Yisrael that he drew up a list of non-Jews who ought to be credited with olam habah (a future in the world to come). Top of his list he put the chosid, Yenner, (Edward Jenner) who developed the first human vaccine against smallpox at the close of the 18th century which saved millions of lives down the years. About 200 years later, that virus was eradicated from the planet by global vaccination.
So, where are we now with our present pandemic – the COVID-19 pandemic? What could the future light at the end of the tunnel look like?
Our current travails with the COVID-19 pandemic are due to a new virus, SARS-Cov-2, introduced into the human population just less than a couple of years back. This is a new pandemic, against which new vaccines were developed at an unprecedented breakneck speed to prevent the resulting new disease. It was a triumph of advanced modern science to develop new vaccines within a year of discovering the causative virus in order to address this formidable new pandemic with urgency. Technologies were employed which had never previously been used for human vaccines. To add to this bewildering mix came the internet and pervasive social media – valuable tools for disseminating important public-health messages, but an equally sinister vehicle for spewing misinformation, conspiracies, and mistrust and, in no small measure, contributing to confusion, anxiety, and, unfortunately, vaccine hesitancy.
So, where do we stand on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 5782 (2021) in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic? As of 24 August (by the time you read this these figures will be quite a bit higher) more than eleven million doses of vaccine have been administered in South Africa with more than 21% of the adult population being vaccinated. Even now, the effectiveness of the vaccination programme is starting to be felt with a small, yet significant, reduction in serious COVID-19 disease and hospitalisation in the country.
What is our expectation for controlling the pandemic with vaccination? It’s interesting that when we look back at the earlier days of the pandemic last year, the scientific community thought that the SARS-Cov-2 virus was as menacing as any new pandemic was feared to be, but that it would turn out to be no more complicated than measles or polio to combat and conquer. We hoped, as with measles and polio, that it wouldn’t take long to develop an effective vaccine to conquer this newcomer.
But that was before the virus uncannily demonstrated its ability to mutate and generate new variants which could escape the protection afforded by vaccination. In turn, the Beta variant arrived, which was relatively resistant to vaccines, and after that, the highly contagious Delta variant, which is now also flexing its muscles for vaccine escape.
Common wisdom dictates that infectious diseases can be combatted in four phases. Phase one is the phase of containment. In this phase, the main damage caused by the offending infectious agent is brought under control. In the case of COVID-19, this is the phase reached by Western developed countries. High vaccine coverage has drastically reduced severe disease which, in the pre-vaccination era, resulted in wealthy countries being brought to their knees and unable to cope with the overwhelming number of critically ill patients, and mortuaries unable to keep pace with burying the dead. But, in spite of extensive vaccination campaigns, infection and illness still persist to a worrying degree. Fortunately, in the majority of cases, illness is mild. Where preventive measures are relaxed, as prematurely occurred in many countries such as Israel, the United States, and several European countries, there have been significant flare-ups. Most public-health authorities would accept this to be an interim phase, as restrictive measures still need to be in place to prevent epidemic waves of illness flaring up.
Only in a future phase two, the phase of control, may we contemplate returning to a pre-COVID-19 life. To enter into this phase, a second generation of advanced vaccines would have to be developed. They would need to provide more effective and durable immunity, be able to be effective against any new variants, and also be able to reduce transmission markedly from infected vaccinated persons. For the latter, the new vaccines will need to effect good immunity in the upper respiratory tract – mucosal immunity. There is, indeed, intensive research into developing this next generation of vaccines. In this phase, restrictions may be relaxed to the point of returning to our pre-2020 lifestyle. Infection and illness won’t totally disappear, but it will be at a tolerable level – perhaps much like the common cold or flu we all accept every winter season.
Phase three, the elimination phase, has been reached with a number of vaccine-preventable diseases. In this phase, infection and illness no longer occur in many parts of the world because of successful vaccination campaigns, although it remains present in other regions of the globe. Examples are polio, measles, and a number of other childhood infections. This phase cannot yet be contemplated for COVID-19. Our best expectation would be to enter into phase two, the control phase.
The ultimate phase four, the eradication phase, has been achieved only with one infectious disease – smallpox. About two centuries after the chosid, Jenner, invented the smallpox vaccine, and following unprecedented vaccination campaigns in every corner of the world, the disease and the virus were finally eradicated in 1980, and the virus formally declared to have been purged from the planet.
Meanwhile, let’s try make the present phase, phase one of COVID-19, as successful as possible. Get vaccinated, and continue to maintain all infection-prevention measures religiously so that we can safely look forward to phase two – maybe some time next year?
- Barry Schoub is the chairperson of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 Vaccines. He is professor emeritus of virology at the University of the Witwatersrand, and was the founding director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. He writes in his personal capacity.
This year, be the change your shul needs
COVID-19 has drastically accelerated change in the way the world works – from a social, work, health, and travel point of view. Politics, economics, and social behaviour has shifted dramatically. And it has had a deep impact on our shuls.
As a community, we are at a watershed moment and have a unique, historic opportunity to rebuild our shuls – creatively and with renewed focus on purpose and meaning.
And we need to do it together.
Many have become comfortable davening at home, and have even begun to question the necessity of returning to shul. I would like to suggest why it’s not just important, but vital.
Praying in isolation can easily become a self-centred experience. Alone with our thoughts, we have only our own hopes and concerns to focus on. But when we pray with a minyan – when we are able to see each other and feel real empathy – we have the opportunity to pray for each other. We see the pain on a person’s face who is struggling financially. Or another person struggling with health complications. Or someone else struggling with a family issue. We are able to truly open our hearts to those around us, and pray for them in their moment of need. The Talmud tells us there is also tremendous personal merit in praying for others’ needs before our own.
And there is the undeniable spiritual power of davening in a minyan. Our sages explain that when we pray together, we come before Hashem not just on our own merit, but with the collective merit of the community – and, in fact, all of klal Yisrael. A minyan represents not just its members but links us spiritually to Jews around the world and across the generations. Our prayers are therefore exponentially more powerful. This is particularly important on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we come before our Creator in judgement, and need every merit we can get.
By praying in a minyan, we become part of something greater than ourselves. When we come to shul, we are contributing to the community. Just by being there, we create a newfound energy and vibrancy.
Particularly now. The pandemic has put great pressure on our shuls, and there is an enormous challenge – but also a great opportunity – to rebuild them to positions of strength, equalling and then exceeding what they were before the pandemic. To build a new, rich sense of community that inspires existing congregants and draws new people in.
And to do that we need to get involved, to be proactive in building the sense of community within our shuls. This means starting or joining shiurim; attending services both on Shabbos and during the week; participating in chesed activities – whether it’s making meals, visiting the sick, or reaching out to fellow congregants with messages of love and support; or contributing to the everyday running of the shul, sponsoring a brocha, or championing a new programme ourselves.
There’s a paradigm shift here. We need to start viewing ourselves not as clients of our shul, but as partners, active participants – not spectators, but players. Our relationship with our shuls shouldn’t be as a consumer weighing whether the product or service is of sufficient benefit to us; the decision to return to shul or daven at home shouldn’t be a cold cost-benefit analysis about what suits us better. We need our shuls. And our shuls need us.
Ultimately, it’s for our own good. Hashem has hardwired us to derive the greatest satisfaction, paradoxically, from moving beyond self-interest. Transcending the self – acting for the sake of the collective, contributing to a greater cause – is deeply fulfilling and deeply pleasurable. Coming back to shul and driving these changes is its own reward.
Among the great challenges society is going through during this pandemic is widespread depression and isolation, each reinforcing the other. And the greatest antidote to these twin challenges is to leave our isolation – to get out there and make a contribution. To get involved in the community. This is absolutely vital for both our own mental health and spiritual vitality, and our communal vibrancy.
Now, as we prepare to welcome in the year 5782, is the time to renew our shuls as active players, not spectators, and partners, not consumers. Ready to make a difference. Together.
The day of judgement is a day of love
I recently argued with a good friend. She always tries to be strictly objective in her assessment of her children. I objected. I feel strongly that my job as a mother isn’t to be objective about my children but always to see the good in them, to judge them favourably, and love them unconditionally.
This positivity bias toward my children is obvious and natural, but at the same time, I truly believe that life experience will teach them to be realistic and humble, that I don’t have to. All the encouragement, support, and love I can give them can only build them up and make them great.
This unconditional positive regard and acceptance can swallow up so many of their problems, so much of their self-doubt and negativity. It can charge my children with all the confidence and strength they need to face life’s challenges and make a success of their lives. I believe in them, and they know it. You’re entitled to your own parenting style, but this is mine, and I stand by it.
It occurs to me that this is also a model to understand our relationship with Hashem, who is like a parent to us. Too often, we approach Elul, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur with trepidation and fear. We become discouraged and demoralised, too mindful of our failings, too oblivious to our potential. This approach is valid if we believe that Hashem’s judgement of us is impartial – “objective” and unbiased. We could justifiably be afraid if we imagine that Hashem is coldly examining our thoughts and deeds and dispassionately attributing credit and blame.
But instead, I offer you the idea that the prevailing atmosphere of Elul is love. We are Hashem’s children, and He is not objective about us at all. At this time of year, when we are in Hashem’s presence, we can allow ourselves to feel loved, encouraged, and supported. We can believe that He sees so much more good in us than bad.
This attitude can inspire us to overcome our faults and weaknesses. Knowing that Hashem believes in us and wants us to succeed can enable us to conquer self-doubt and negativity. We’re not in a power struggle with Hashem, we aren’t His adversaries. He’s always helping us and supporting us. And in this light, on Yom HaDin, our day of judgement, we have little to fear.
We can feel safe in the knowledge that we all have the unfair advantage of being judged by our Loving Father in heaven, who believes in us. He regards each of us as a hero. He knows that our strengths can overwhelm our weaknesses. He wants only to reward us and help us succeed. Like the perfect parent, He judges us favourably, waits for us patiently, loves us unconditionally, allows us to grow up slowly, watches our choices, and gets much nachas from our growth!
Shana tovah uMetuka! May we all be written and sealed for goodness!
- Rebbetzin Gina Goldstein has been speaking, teaching, writing, and volunteering in the South African Jewish community for more than 25 years. Together with her husband Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, she co-founded The Shabbos Project, Sinai Indaba, and Generation Sinai.
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