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Miracle of the meek against the mighty

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Parshot/Festivals

The story of Jewish history is unique among all civilisations. No nation has been confronted with adversity as it has and survived. Yet the Jewish people have endured and continue to flourish. One of the extraordinary facets of this phenomenon is the tiny numerical size of the Jewish people who have faced seeming insurmountable odds.

History has produced powerful and mighty empires which have tried to swallow up the Jewish people, yet they themselves have been swallowed while this tiny nation continues.

This is one of the themes of Chanukah – the “few against the many” and the “weak against the mighty”. Ancient Greece with its vast armies was formidable. The Maccabees were a small band of soldiers. Yet the few defeated the many; the weak overcame the mighty.

This week’s Torah portion of Vayeishev coincides with Chanukah. Therefore, a connection must be found as there are no co-incidences.

The commentator Birkas Chaim explains that in both Chanukah and the portion, we see the idea of the numerically small prevailing over the greater in size and number. Yosef has two dreams. In the first, he and his brothers are in the field and are binding grain into sheaves. Yosef’s sheaf arises and stands. The many brothers’ sheaves surround Yosef’s sheaf and bow to it. In the second dream, Yosef envisions the sun, moon, and eleven stars (referring to his brothers and his parents – the many) bowing to him.

Chanukah also generally falls over the portion of Miketz (next week) and again we see the same allusion. Pharaoh dreams of seven lean cows swallowing seven fat cows. In his second dream, the seven thin ears of grain swallow up the seven healthy and full ears of grain.

The message in all of these is the same. The few and weak prevail over the many and mighty.

The Maccabees’ defeat of the Greeks was a miracle enclothed in nature. The second Chanukah miracle of the oil that was sufficient for one day and burnt for eight days was completely beyond nature. This open manifestation of the divine that shone on the Jewish people was the last nationally revealed “beyond-nature” miracle. Thereafter, miracles were enclothed only in nature.

Why is this the parting miracle? The message is as follows: “You are a supernatural people. You are bound to eternity and cannot be vanquished. Although you are small in number, you are different and not subject to the natural laws of history that have resulted in the demise of vast superpowers. Your size isn’t what counts. It’s your inner might and strength. Yours is the task of being a Maccabee, of holding true to your unique mission and destiny. The key to your individual and national strength is the pure oil of the Torah – the source of light that empowers you and connects you to the G-d of all.”

If one pours gallons of liquid onto a tiny drop of oil, the oil will remain distinct and rise to the top. The quality of Torah with the heroism of a Maccabee is mightier than every force in creation.

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Looking devastation squarely in the eye

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“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.

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Purim: a four-point plan for embracing uncertainty

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As we approach Purim this year, it’s hard to escape the feeling of disappointment. This is the second Purim since the beginning of the pandemic, and the world remains upside down. Our lives at the moment seem reduced, our Purim celebrations muted.

But maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe this is the year for a Purim like no other.

Think about what we are all grappling with at the moment – the pervading sense we have is of living in a world of uncertainty.

Purim is all about embracing uncertainty. In fact, the very word “Purim” means “lots”, referring to the lots Haman cast randomly to select the day to carry out his genocidal plan.

In a world so full of threats and danger, Purim gives us a game plan. In fact, the four mitzvot of Purim constitute the perfect formula for coping with an uncertain world.

First, the mitzvah to hear the reading of the Megillah in the night and again on the day of Purim teaches us about faith. The Megillah inspires us to see Hashem’s presence everywhere, even when it isn’t obvious. The name Esther – the Megillah’s chief protagonist – comes from the word hester, meaning “hidden”, a hint at G-d’s hidden presence in the world (Talmud, Chulin 139b). Famously, the Megillah, which relates the miraculous story of how the Jewish people were saved from annihilation, doesn’t mention Hashem’s name once. Even when we cannot see Him, we are reminded that He is there, looking out for us every moment of every day.

He was in ancient Persia when Haman rose up against us, and He is here with us in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. We can take comfort in knowing we are in His loving embrace, and that everything He does is ultimately for our best.

The third mitzvah of Purim – matanot l’evyonim (Esther 9:22), giving money to those in need on the day – reminds us of the power of giving. There are many who have been hit financially by COVID-19. Our incredible institutions, too, are buckling under the strain. This year in particular, when so many of us are vulnerable, we need to reach out and give according to our means.

Then there’s mishloach manot (Esther 9:22) – sending gifts of food to our friends and family on Purim. Now is the time to invest in our relationships. We need them more than ever. We need to lean on one another. Our relationships feed us, giving us the strength and emotional well-being to withstand these difficult times. At a time of isolation and dislocation, mishloach manot remind us to fortify our connections to the people around us as we draw strength from them and they draw strength from us.

Finally, there is the seudat Purim, the celebratory meal on Purim day. The Purim seudah is a feast of gratitude and thanksgiving. We are grateful to Hashem for our miraculous deliverance on Purim, and it reminds us to offer thanks to Him also for the daily miracles we all experience, to truly savour the divine blessings we have in our lives, and to live with gratitude.

And so, as the world gradually moves to the next phase of this great global health struggle, let’s embrace Purim. Not with big gatherings, but with immersive engagement in the four mitzvot of the day which, together, provide a game plan for living in a world of uncertainty, guiding us to the four things we need right now: faith, kindness, love, and gratitude.

May we all merit the “light and joy and celebration and glory” (Esther 8:16) which the Megillah tells us filled their world after the miracles of Purim, and may these divine blessings flow into our lives and into our world.

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Valiant heroes and dark villians – why Purim is like COVID-19

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We all love fairy tales. Beautiful, clever heroes who use their charm to bring frightening dramas to a quick denouement after which everybody lives happily ever after.

From nursery school, this is how the story of Purim has been told to us by well-meaning educators: gorgeous young Esther, blessed to have won an empire-wide beauty contest to become the new Queen of Persia, lives in wedded bliss with the King. As soon as a threat is levelled against her people, she manages to sweet-talk her husband, Achashverosh, to nullify the plan. And they all live happily ever after.

I apologise in advance if I’m spoiling a childhood dream. A thorough reading of the Book of Esther, aided by the commentary found in Talmud Megillah, shows each of the statements in the above paragraph to be untrue. Esther was neither young, gorgeous, nor happy. She was dragged, against her will, to join the King’s harem. Though she secured the role of spouse, she still lived a miserable double life, and had to vie for the monarch’s attention against many rivals.

By the time she heard of Haman’s evil plan, she hadn’t seen the King for more than a month. And here’s a little challenge: for an audience with the King, you need to be invited. Nobody, even Achashverosh’s wife, simply marches into the throne room and says, “Howzit!”, as Mordechai expected Esther to do. Trespassers are executed!

Esther’s approach to the King could only have disastrous consequences for her. At worst, she would lose her life for her breach of royal protocol. At best, the King would extend his golden sceptre to her, signifying forgiveness for her breach (which, as we all know, is what happened). This outcome would actually be far from pretty. But first let me introduce you to another fact you are unlikely to have been taught by your nursery – or even primary – school teacher.

As per the Talmud, prior to her abduction to the harem, Mordechai and Esther were husband and wife. For years, she lived a double life, halachically married to one man while prisoner to another’s whims. Yet, from the moment she volunteered to approach the King and seduce him into saving her people, her marriage to Mordechai would have to end by Jewish law (which tragically is precisely what happened).

Mordechai’s request of Esther was to make an ultimate sacrifice for both of them. It involved pain and deprivation for individuals for the sake of the entire nation. A sacrifice Esther took upon herself, with the famous words, “Thus I will come to the King, contrary to the law, and if I perish, I perish.” (Esther, Chapter 4). A verse heavily loaded with double meaning. “Contrary to the law” – Persia’s or G-d’s? “I perish, I perish” – in this world or in the world to come.

The past year has been no fairy tale, just like the Purim story. But these magic stories often involve villains and heroes. Here the parallel applies.

The hero and heroine of Purim are Mordechai and Esther, a couple prepared to make huge personal sacrifices (hers far greater than his, of course) for the benefit of a community.

So many heroes have emerged in the past year and a half. These are good men and women, giving up what’s precious to them for the common good. Tribute has been paid to the angels of Hatzolah and to frontline health workers who have worked tirelessly under horrid conditions to save lives and minimise pain. In my position of chairperson of the South African Rabbinical Association, I also want to make mention of the heroic efforts of my colleagues to give spiritual guidance and hope to our community, this with our sanctuaries shuttered for the greater part of the past year.

The real hero is each one of us, in our own personal life, who has made and continues to make huge personal sacrifices for the good of the wider community. The many of us who stay home, cut down on socialising, give up on parties, glamourous weddings, Barmitzvahs and Batmitzvahs, and other life-cycle celebrations, and have radically modified our lifestyle to save others’ lives. Not to mention the wretched mask wearing, an altruistic act, according to experts, who say that most of the benefit is for those around us. The cost to this year’s Purim observance has been huge, accustomed as we are to large, merry gatherings.

The mortal danger in the Purim story took close to a year to disappear. To be exact, from Pesach to Purim. (Haman’s edict was promulgated on the Eve of Passover; the threat ceased about 11 months later, on 14 Adar, later to become Purim.) That’s the precise timeline of the current peril we are facing. We pray for Hashem to give us another Purim miracle, with total and complete deliverance from the current danger. As we read in the Book of Esther (Chapter 9), may we experience “transformation from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning to festivity”.

Purim sameach!

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