Mystery of the milchik festival
When you ask a Jewish six-year old what their favourite festival is, you will probably get the answer that it’s Purim. It’s definitely the most fun – dressing up, giving, and receiving gifts, making noise when you hear Haman’s name.
RABBI SAM THURGOOD
If you ask a parent whose children are overseas but come home once in a while for Yom Tov, it’s likely that Pesach is their favourite chag (holiday). Family time together around the seder table, sharing old memories, and creating new ones.
A nature lover? Surely Sukkot – a festival spent outdoors in which plants and fruits play such a prominent role.
Ask a vegetarian, and you will probably get the answer that it’s Shavuot – a festival at which suddenly, everywhere they go, meals are milchik (dairy) and they can munch on the entire spread.
Why is the latter the case? The general practice in the Jewish world is to have meat meals over Yom Tov, based on the Rambam who said (Hilchot Yom Tov 6:18) that joy on Yom Tov is experienced best through meat and wine. However Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, disputes this, and does not record this as halacha.
I tell my community that on Yom Tov, they should eat what they and their families find the most delicious, but on Shavuot, the Jewish world goes milchik.
My Rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Azriel Chaim Goldfein, taught us that in Judaism, there are things that are significant and important, and others that are not so much. From the perspective of halacha (Jewish law), having dairy on Shavuot is certainly not so important.
If someone prefers meat, they can munch on biltong from the beginning of the festival to the end without taking a bite of cheesecake, and not feel that they have disrespected the festival. However, every custom of Israel has deep meaning and wisdom, and this one is no exception.
The most straightforward explanation for our love of cheesecake on Shavuot is that given by the Mishnah Brura. He explains that when we began receiving the laws of the Torah, we realised all that was involved in koshering meat: shechting (slaughtering), removing the forbidden fats, salting, and so forth. The easier option for our ancestors around Mount Sinai was to avoid meat altogether.
The Ramo – Rabbi Moshe Isserles – offers more complex reasoning. The special offering in the Temple over Shavuot was two loaves of bread. If we begin our meal with milk, and then switch over halfway through to meat, we must change all of the cutlery and crockery. More than that, we need to wash our hands, clean our mouths, and start a new loaf of bread in order to avoid inadvertent mixing of milk and meat.
The end result is that we will be eating from two different loaves of bread during the Shavuot meal – milk at the beginning and meat at the end. The difficulty of this approach is the risk of making a kashrut mistake. This is why my shul doesn’t follow this for our communal dinner, although for private homes, it’s a great Shavuot experience.
On a deeper level, the Sfat Emet, the Chassidic Rebbe of Ger, explains that when we reach the highest level of purity on Shavuot, after all of the internal work that we have done during the Omer, we reach the source from which both purity and impurity come.
This is milk, the source and beginning of life, and reminds us that Torah too is our source of life and nourishment, from which all else in our life flows.
In closing, I would like to offer my own explanation: the Torah was given in the desert to teach us that anyone, anywhere, can accept Torah, and forge a meaningful and holy relationship with Hashem (G-d).
But we were never intended to stay at Mount Sinai forever. Accepting the Torah and making it a part of us, we were destined to make our way as a nation to the land flowing with milk and honey, to Israel, where we could build a Torah society, and develop as a holy nation.
Torah speaks to each of us, but our own personal acceptance of it is not the end – we must flow from there to building communities and societies infused with goodness and holiness. Chag Sameach!
- Rabbi Sam Thurgood is the rabbi of Beit Midrash Morasha at Arthurs Road in Cape Town.
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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