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Parshat Beshalach – from the Chief’s desk

This week’s parsha teaches us that it is indeed possible to live a life of Torah ideals, regardless of the circumstances. The parsha begins with the Jewish people leaving Egypt. They get to the edge of the Red Sea and by this stage Pharaoh regrets having begged them to leave after the tenth plague, and he and his army are in hot pursuit to bring them back to Egypt.

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RABBI DR WARREN GOLDSTEIN
 

At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Beshalach, we find one of the most bitter, cynical complaints in history. The parsha begins with the Jewish people leaving Egypt. They get to the edge of the Red Sea and by this stage Pharaoh regrets having begged them to leave after the tenth plague, and he and his army are in hot pursuit to bring them back to Egypt. On the one side they see Pharaoh approaching them and on the other side they see the Red Sea. They are caught, literally, between the devil and the deep blue sea. Their reaction is cynical: hamibli ain kevarim beMitzraim lekachtanu lamut bamidbar, “were there were no graves in Egypt you have brought us to die in the desert?”

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Complaining is a natural human reaction to problems. They are stuck and frightened, Pharaoh is on the one side, the sea is on the other side and they don’t know how it’s going to end. They see no way out. Yet after everything they have seen – the ten plagues and all the miracles – it’s surprising that they would say something so cynical to Moses. Indeed, this was a terrible, bitter and cynical complaint on their part. 

The Torah is a book of truth and implementable ideals

The fact that the Torah records this complaint shows that it’s a book of truth; it’s not a legend or fairy tale, but a recounting of the historical events which took place. If we were writing a happily-ever-after fairy tale, we would describe the ten plagues, how the Jews came out victoriously, happy and confident; how they came to the Red Sea, how they had faith in G-d and how the sea split. But the Torah is not a fairy tale, and so it records even this bitter cynicism because that is what actually happened. Throughout the Torah we find records of our great ancestors’ sins in full detail, because the Torah is a book of truth, not fables.

The Torah is also a book about living with ideals in the real world, with all its difficulties. On the one hand, the Torah is about G-d’s vision for us – the ideals, mitzvos, principles and values with which we are meant to live; on the other hand, we are real people, flesh and blood, and we make mistakes. The challenge is to translate G-d’s lofty ideals into the reality of our lives. This is why Torah law is called Halacha, which comes from the Hebrew word lalechet, “to walk.” It’s about taking those ideals and walking through life with them, making them a part of our life – literally “walking the talk.” G-d gave the Torah so that it will be implemented, and that is why all the “messy” details – the failures and sins of the people – are recorded. These are testimony to the fact that G-d gave us the Torah fully aware of our frailties, vulnerabilities and shortcomings. Despite our human limitations, He gave us the Torah because we are capable of living up to the ideals that He has given us. 

Leading an ideal life in a less-than-ideal world

The parsha records that when they left Egypt, Moses took the bones of Joseph with him. They carried Joseph’s coffin throughout their forty-year journey in the desert and buried him once they got to the Land of Israel. When Yaakov died, he had left instructions to be buried in Israel and so when he died his body was moved immediately from Egypt to Israel. Yosef’s instructions were a bit different: he said pakod yifkod etchem, “G-d will remember you,” and when you are eventually redeemed, take me with you and bury me in the Land of Israel. He didn’t ask to be buried immediately in Israel, only when they left Egypt.

The Midrash says that as they travelled in the desert, two things walked in front of them: the Holy Ark which contained the Tablets on which the Ten Commandments were engraved, and Yosef’s coffin. It seems strange to have a coffin alongside the Holy Ark. But the Midrash explains that the reason for this was because Yosef had fulfilled the whole Torah, and so his coffin went alongside the Ark which contained the Tablets. The two went together – the Holy Ark, representing the ideal, and Yosef’s coffin, because Yosef exemplified how the ideal can be practiced and lived by in the real world. 

Sometimes we wonder, can it really be done? We think, maybe it can be done in a perfect, ideal world but not in the imperfect world in which we live. But Yosef reminds us that it is indeed possible. Yosef lived in the real, imperfect and difficult world. He was sold at the age of 17; he had to find his way in the house of Potifar, overcome the temptation of committing adultery with Potifar’s wife and overcome the struggles of being in an Egyptian dungeon. And then, possibly his greatest test was that he went from the dungeon to becoming the viceroy, the second-in-command, of all of Egypt. He then had all the power, fame and fortune and yet he still remained loyal to the values of his father’s house. He lived under extremely challenging circumstances and proved that living with ideals in a less-than-ideal world is possible. 

Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, in his commentary Oznayim LaTorah, discusses how the two aronot – the Ark and the coffin – went next to each other, to show the people that Torah is doable. They mustn’t think it is something for the heavens and that it cannot be achieved here on earth. Yosef is the proof of that and that is why his coffin goes in front of the people, next to the Ark: to inspire the people and show them that it is possible to live the ideals of Torah, whatever the circumstances.

Living with faith through all circumstances 

But there could be another reason, another message, behind why Yosef’s coffin had to accompany them. The people in the desert were not just struggling with keeping the mitzvos. They were struggling with faith in G-d. Already when they left Egypt their faith was tested. They saw the Egyptians on the one side, the sea on the other and they thought, where is G-d? He has abandoned us. Their complaining and cynicism reflected a crisis of faith. The message behind why Yosef’s coffin had to accompany the people is that Yosef exemplified trust and faith in G-d even under difficult circumstances. It’s one thing to have faith and trust in G-d when things are going well; it’s another thing entirely when things are difficult. When you are seventeen years old and your own brothers turn against you and sell you into slavery and you land up in a foreign land where you can’t speak the language, and then just when you think things are going well you end up in a dungeon – we can only imagine how difficult it must have been for him.  And yet he pulled through, with his faith intact.

Our faith is often tested in challenging times. Part of our faith is to believe that G-d is in control and that whatever happens, gam zu letovah – this too is for the good, even if we don’t always understand things and things don’t always turn out the way we want them to.

The fact that Yosef came through all his trials with his faith intact is seen very clearly when he reveals himself to his brothers and they are broken about what they had done to him, and he says to them, don’t worry, you intended for the bad, but G-d intended for the good; He sent me here to save this whole region from famine. We see that Yosef eventually figured out why everything had to happen. He understood why he had to go through all this pain and suffering – to save everyone from the famine. And again, after their father’s death, the brothers worried that Yosef would bear a grudge against them and Yosef says don’t worry, I can see G-d’s hand in this. Yosef knew all along that G-d is in control. And that is why he said to them pakod yifkod “G-d will remember you one day.” He was so confident that G-d would redeem them that he said don’t worry about burying me in Israel, I know I will get there eventually because G-d will redeem you from Egypt, and when he does, take my body with you. Yosef’s life exemplified faith and trust in G-d. 

G-d’s master plan

The remarkable irony is this: Yosef thought he understood G-d’s plan, but he actually didn’t. The Gemara explains that Yosef was buried in Shechem, the very place where he waskidnapped and sold by his brothers; he was taken from Shechem and he was buried in Shechem, showing the completion of G-d’s plan, spanning a few hundred years. Yosef thought he understood G-d’s plan, but G-d’s plans don’t always work out in a matter of a few years. They can sometimes take decades and even centuries and longer. He thought G-d had sent him to Egypt because there was going to be a famine and he had to save the whole region from starvation. But in fact, G-d brought the famine so that Yaakov and his whole family would come down to Egypt. G-d wanted the whole family in Egypt so that we, as a people, would be born into the slavery of Egypt and then be liberated by G-d and witness the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea; He wanted us to be created as a nation through our freedom given by Him with miracles. For that to happen, we had to be in Egypt and so G-d brought a famine. Yosef thought he understood that he was there to save them from the famine, but actually the famine was there to get them all down to Egypt, then to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, and eventually to the Promised Land. Thus G-d’s plan began and ended in Shechem; when they eventually re-enter the Land of Israel and Yosef is buried in Shechem, the circle is complete.

G-d’s plan works on a much larger scale than we can even begin to imagine. That’s why our trust and faith in G-d is often tested – we see only a fraction of the picture, a blurred glimpse. G-d sees the full picture. To us, it’s like looking at the back of a tapestry – it’s a knotty mess. But when viewed from the front, the beautiful picture can be seen. The message of Yosef’s coffin travelling with the people was to say, remember, here was a man who lived with trust and faith in G-d even through terrible suffering. His life represents Hashem’s incredible plan, that G-d is watching everything, even though His plan is sometimes brought to fruition not in a matter of weeks or months or even years, but decades and centuries and sometimes even longer. 

The people travelling in the desert – ordinary people, flesh and blood – made all kinds of human mistakes and had many failures. And yet the Torah was given to them. G-d gave us the Torah knowing that we are mortals, because he wants us to live up to the greatest ideals. He wanted the people in that generation to live up to those ideals and the life story of Yosef is what inspired them to do so. Yosef showed that it can be done, that one can live a life of mitzvos and do the right thing and fulfil G-d’s will despite the circumstances. He showed what it means to have real trust and faith in Hashem, even when things don’t turn out the way we want. His life showed that there is a broader picture, a grander scale of history, that G-d is watching every detail and that He loves us and cares about us. 

Let that be our inspiration to make the lofty ideals
of the Torah a real part of our day-to-day lives.

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Mount Meron tragedy devastates South African family

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Yohanatan Hevroni was so excited about going to Mount Meron for Lag B’Omer after not having been there for seven years, he arranged a bus for his community to get there. This time, he went as a beloved husband and the father of three girls. He wouldn’t return alive.

The 27-year-old tzaddik who lived in Givat Shmuel in central Israel leaves behind his children and wife, Tanya Hevroni (nee Taback), who made aliyah with her family from Johannesburg in 1997.

Hevroni was one of the 45 people who died senselessly in a stampede at the annual Mount Meron Lag B’Omer celebrations on Thursday, 29 April, the largest peacetime tragedy in Israel’s existence.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from the shiva house on Tuesday, 4 May, Tanya’s brother, Eitan Taback, described how events unfolded.

“A rabbi told us that on the way there, Yohanatan said how amazing it was to see the influence a tzaddik had after he had died [referring to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose life is celebrated by thousands on Lag B’Omer at Mount Meron]. And after Yohanatan passed, we saw the amount of influence he had on everyone around him – the children he taught, people with whom he learned Torah.

“At 03:00 on Thursday night, Yohanatan’s mother got a phone call from his phone,” said Taback. “They said ‘his phone had been found in Meron, but we can’t find him’. Immediately, search parties were sent to hospitals and Meron itself. No one had any answers. After searching everywhere, they decided, with heavy hearts, to check the morgue, and that’s where they found him.”

Kalanit Taub, a volunteer emergency medical worker with United Hatzalah of Israel, described the devastation she encountered at the scene. “We saw stretcher after stretcher coming up the hill, with people performing CPR on them as they were running. I just saw bodies lying on the ground to my left and right. They all looked completely whole, completely fine, no broken bones, no blood. When we learned about [dealing with] a mass casualty incident, the first thing you’re supposed to do is treat the injured because those are the ones you’re more likely to save. But I didn’t see anyone injured. All I saw was people who weren’t breathing, who didn’t have a heartbeat. I thought, ‘Where are the injured people? Everywhere you look, everybody’s dead!’

“There was nothing we could do for any of them, we all tried our hardest, and we were completely unsuccessful,” she said. “The line of bodies kept getting longer and longer. Within seconds, they were out of body bags. We were taking thermal blankets to cover these people. And then we were out of thermal blankets. We didn’t have anything to cover the bodies with. There were just too many of them.”

Taub is also a member of the psycho-trauma unit. “I walked up the hill, and there were so many people in shock. People screaming hysterically, staring into space, and lying on the ground in foetal positions, unresponsive. I probably treated a hundred psycho-trauma patients. Meanwhile, [community emergency response team] ZAKA set up a tent that became the station where all the lost kids went. They were just naming kids one after the other separated from their parents. But not all were reunited because some of those parents died.”

By a miracle, Hevroni’s family managed to arrange his funeral for that day at 17:00. Because it was just before Shabbat, they expected few people to attend. But thousands arrived to pay their respects.

“The extent of his impact on people was so clear,” said Taback. “One rabbi bought a book of poems that Yohanatan wrote. They were about the simple things in life, and recognising the good in all other human beings. One of his students shared how he came to learn with Yohanatan and be inspired by him, but after their lesson, it was Yohanatan who told his student that he was inspiring.”

He described his brother-in-law as a “quiet guy, with a gentle soul, who always had a huge smile on his face”. He and Tanya married in Israel and went on to have three daughters, aged six, four, and two. They celebrated their eldest daughter’s sixth birthday a few days before the tragedy. “It would be the last celebration we would have together. There was so much happiness,” Taback said.

Two years ago, the family faced a major crisis when Tanya was diagnosed with cancer. “Yohanatan was there the whole time. He was a full-time father and mother. Now it’s the other way around. Tanya will have to be both the mother and the father.”

He said his parents, Ofra and David Taback, have been by his sister’s side from the moment they heard that Yohanatan was missing. “My parents are strong. They’re trying to be there for Tanya and the family. They’ve been here night and day.” Family around the world have joined in their grief.

Taback said his sister is devastated, but the support of the community had helped tremendously. “One thing we can take from this is that the Jewish nation will always unite in these situations. We must be there, one for each other, as brothers and sisters are meant to be,” said Taback. “Just be good to each other. We don’t need to wait for disasters to unite us. As the Jewish people, that’s who we are.”

Meanwhile, young South Africans on a gap year in Israel said the disaster had hit close to home. Many of their contemporaries attended the celebrations at Mount Meron. Dean Chaitowitz, who is at Yeshiva Eretz HaTzvi in Jerusalem, said he would have been there if enough boys from his yeshiva wanted to go.

“It wasn’t an official yeshiva trip, but they said that if there are enough kids, they’ll organise a bus to go. I’m trying to absorb as much of Israel as possible on my gap year, so I wanted to go. But in the end, there wasn’t enough of a demand. I was upset that I didn’t go, but when we found out what happened, I was shocked. I could easily have been there; our whole group would have gone. Hearing about yeshiva boys getting killed really hit hard, just knowing that it could literally have been any of us.”

Dani Sack who studying is at the Midreshet HaRova seminary in Jerusalem, said, “My group wasn’t going to go to Meron, but hearing about the tragedy nonetheless was a huge shock to the system, especially since some of our friends were planning to go.

“It was jarring considering we’d been so close to Meron, and also celebrated with dancing and singing that night. The fact that so many of those wounded and killed were young people put into perspective the magnitude of what a gap year entails. Being away from family is scary enough, but to think that a simple celebration on Lag B’Omer could turn deadly is terrifying.

“At Midreshet HaRova, we sang and said tehillim at the Kotel in honour of those who were killed. All the Torah we learned on Sunday was l’iluy nishmat [for the elevation of the soul] of the 45 we lost. In Israel, the mood over Shabbos and the weekend was solemn. You could feel the loss in the air. It’s really surreal being here during this moment, something that the Jewish national will remember forever.”

To support the family of the late Yohanatan Hevroni, please visit: https://givechak.co.il/yeonatan/en

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Emotions run high as JSC denies discrimination

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The South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) has called for a face-to-face meeting with the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) to resolve tensions following the recent JSC interviews of Jewish judges, which the Board described as discriminatory.

The JSC this week denied that its interviews of Jewish candidates for appointment to the Bench were discriminatory and anti-constitutional. It said it was “factually incorrect” to say that Jewish applicants were targeted at interviews.

The Board told the SA Jewish Report on Wednesday, 5 May, that this week’s JSC statement was “unfortunate”.

Said National Director Wendy Kahn, “The SAJBD had already requested a meeting with the JSC prior to it issuing this statement. Notwithstanding the JSC’s denial this week that it had done anything wrong, we believe that the nature of the questions put to the candidates was irregular and discriminatory, and as such, in conflict with the fundamental constitutional right of all South Africans to equality and freedom of belief and association. It’s unfortunate to politicise such an august body.”

She said the Board continued to call for a face-to-face meeting with the JSC as it believed it was a “more constructive way” to address issues than through the media.

In recent weeks, the SAJBD accused the JSC of targeting Advocate Lawrence Lever and Judge David Unterhalter when they were asked questions about their Jewish identity and practice. It also described the JSC’s questioning of both men as “discriminatory and anti-constitutional”.

In a statement last week, Kahn said, “Advocate Lawrence Lever and Judge David Unterhalter were subjected to questions pertaining to their Jewish identity while no other candidates were subjected to offensive religious scrutiny. Advocate Lever was asked about his level of religious observance, specifically whether he observes Shabbat. It was made clear that this observance would be problematic for his appointment.

“It should also be noted that no other candidate was questioned on their religious practice except those of the Jewish faith. Christian candidates weren’t asked about working on Christmas, nor were Muslim candidates asked about working on Friday afternoons or Eid. It’s also extremely disturbing that questions posed to both Advocate Lever and Judge Unterhalter focused extensively on their possible association with the Board.

“Equally concerning were questions posed to the two Jewish candidates regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said Kahn. “Both were questioned on their stance on the two-state solution. It’s difficult to understand how a conflict of this nature has intruded into this forum. No Muslim candidates were questioned on the issue.”

In response, the JSC said this Tuesday that the SAJBD was selectively quoting parts of the interviews.

It rejected claims that no other candidate was questioned on their religious practices except those of the Jewish faith. It also labelled the claims by the SAJBD as factually inaccurate.

“The questions relating to the association with the SAJBD dealt with concerns that the organisation supports Zionism which is viewed as a discriminatory form of nationalism and potentially in conflict with the values contained in the South African Constitution,” read the statement.

“The questions on this score were raised with the two candidates following letters of objection received by the JSC in respect of Judge Unterhalter from various organisations, including the Black Lawyers Association. This is part of JSC practice intended to afford candidates the opportunity to respond to objections lodged against their candidature.”

The statement continued, “It’s not factually correct that other candidates who aren’t of Jewish descent weren’t asked questions related to their religious affiliations.” There were other candidates who were asked questions relating to their religious or cultural beliefs, the statement said.

Said Advocate Mark Oppenheimer, “After watching Judge Unterhalter’s interview, it’s striking how many questions were about his brief stint at the SAJBD and how few questions were about his qualifications. The ratio indicates a failure on the JSC’s behalf to ask pertinent questions about his ability to hold judicial office. The volume and repetition of questions about the Board should be of concern to all South Africans who care about the important attributes of those who take up office at the highest court in the land.”

Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein expressed outrage at the “conduct of the commissioners of the [JSC] in their questioning of the two Jewish judges”, describing it as “racist and antisemitic in effect, if not in intention”.

He called on JSC commissioners to retract and apologise for their comments. He also called on President Cyril Ramaphosa to return the list to the JSC as the Constitution allows him to do on the grounds that aspects of the hearing exhibited discriminatory questions which cast a shadow on the entire process.

The JSC recommended Lever for a vacant position in the Northern Cape. The JSC also recommended lawyer Norman Manoim for a vacancy on the Gauteng High Court Bench. Both have been referred to President Cyril Ramaphosa for appointment. Unterhalter didn’t make the final list of nominees.

Meanwhile, the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution is reportedly considering legal options regarding the recent interviews by the JSC for appointment to the Constitutional Court.

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Preventing stampedes ‘is a science’

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As the dust settles after the Mount Meron disaster, questions will be asked about how it happened and why. Local expert Professor Efraim Kramer says stopping stampedes requires training, expertise, and planning, as just one “spark” in a crowd can have deadly consequences.

“It’s complex, emotional, and difficult to talk about stampedes, because people die needlessly. Whether it’s a football stadium or Mount Meron, people are going there for joy, yet it turns into tragedy. There’s no real place for blame because it needs a full investigation,” says Kramer.

He shared his perspectives with the SA Jewish Report as an expert in emergency and mass gathering (event) medicine. Kramer is the former head of the division of emergency medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand, and professor of sports medicine at Pretoria University.

He has specialised in emergency, disaster, and stampede medicine for 30 years, and was FIFA’s tournament medical officer at the FIFA World Cup Russia in 2018. Since then, he has been actively involved with FIFA Medical. He is also involved in teaching and researching mass gathering medicine, including soccer-stadium stampede prevention and the management of disaster medicine, having been actively involved in assistance missions after earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, and volcanoes.

“A stampede is a terrible way to die,” he says. “It’s a slow asphyxiation. You can’t breathe for two to four minutes. The weight of a crowd like that can push over a wall. It’s tons of pressure. Then, if people fall down, they have no time or room to get up, and others trample on them. People either walk [over those who have fallen] or fall over themselves. So you also see severe trauma injuries.”

Kramer says preventing stampedes requires legislation, management, planning, risk assessment, logistics, and most of all, training. “In almost every incident I’ve seen like this, there has been no training. You can have 1 000 policeman and 1 000 stewards, but if no one is trained to recognise the signs of stampedes, they can easily happen. All it takes is one ‘spark’.”

He alludes to one person falling over in a stadium passage, or one fight that broke out in a stadium, which led to many people dying in stampedes in the past.

Kramer explains that medically, responding to a stampede is often counterintuitive to what a medical professional would normally do.

“In other mass disasters, you triage people who aren’t unconscious and prioritise them over unconscious victims who you may leave. But in a stampede, you immediately do CPR [cardiopulmonary resuscitation] on the asphyxiated, non-breathing victims, because they usually have a healthy heart and you want to get oxygen back to that heart. You do CPR for half an hour to get the heart to start pumping again. You do CPR on every single non-breathing person, and then they do survive. So you don’t run it like an accident. You don’t take them to hospital – you work tirelessly on the scene.”

He says in crowded environments, it’s essential to keep the flow of people going. Even if they are walking in a narrow area, like the site where the Mount Meron tragedy occurred, as long as there is a flow of people, it’s likely to be safe. “But as soon as something goes wrong – like someone falling – it quickly perpetuates a vicious cycle.”

One way to keep the flow going is to use megaphones. “You can tell people to stop pushing, that people are getting injured, and to stay where they are. You can tell people that are being crushed to turn on their side, as then they can still breathe. You can control things verbally. Communication is crucial, and it needs to be planned beforehand.”

In his work with football stadiums, other small but significant changes have been implemented to prevent stampedes. For example, tickets are sold offsite to prevent stampedes should tickets run out. In addition, spectators are allowed only to sit in a seat, no one is allowed to stand or sit anywhere else. This controls numbers and keeps pathways open. “In 2021, crowd management is a science that needs to be learnt before disaster strikes and people die,” he says.

Kramer has seen similar numbers of deaths at other stampedes. For example, 43 people died at the Ellis Park Stadium tragedy [in South Africa] exactly 20 years ago. He says this number of fatalities is expected in the first five minutes of a stampede.

While Kramer wants to avoid laying blame, his first impression of the tragedy is that “the system went wrong … from the top, right to the bottom. Now, they’ll have to do what they should have done before – control the amount of people, manage risk, train personnel, and so on. It needs to be a well-oiled machine to stop people from dying.”

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