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Parshat Bo – The Ultimate Freedom

Some of the most important blessings that we enjoy in life we take for granted. For example, breathing. The Gemara actually says that we should give thanks to Hashem for every breath – al kol neshima veneshima. Seeing somebody on a ventilator, G-d forbid, makes us realise what a blessing breathing is. But generally, we take breathing for granted. We don’t even think about it, we do it subconsciously.

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RABBI DR WARREN GOLDSTEIN

This week’s parsha teaches us how the

power of free choice can change our lives 

One of the blessings which G-d has given us and which we take for granted is freedom itself. When we talk about freedom, we are not talking about freedom in the political sense but rather freedom of choice, namely, that G-d has given every single human being the freedom to choose between right and wrong, good and evil. We have the freedom to make decisions and affect our lives.

Our parsha, Bo, opens with G-d saying to Moshe Bo el par’oh ki ani hichbadeti et libo ve’et lev avadav lema’an shiti ototai eileh bekirbo, “come to Pharaoh for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants in order that I may place My signs in their midst.” Here, as well as in last week’s parsha, we find a clear reference to the fact that G-d took away Pharaoh’s free choice by “hardening his heart.” At the beginning, when Moshe comes to Pharaoh and says let the people go, Pharaoh refuses. Then come the first five plagues, one after the other. With each plague, Pharaoh says alright, I will let them go, and as soon as the plague is taken away he changes his mind.

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Initially Pharaoh was operating completely out of free choice. But at a certain point G-d takes away Pharaoh’s free choice, where he can longer choose to let the people go. This poses a moral question: how could G-d take away his free choice? Free choice is one of the fundamental pillars of the Torah; how could G-d take it away?

Forfeiting the right of free choice

Our sages offer many different approaches to this question. In chapter six of his Laws of Repentance, the Rambam, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, known as Maimonides, explains why G-d took away Pharaoh’s free choice. He says that although every single person has free choice, there are some really evil people who, after they have chosen to do evil and have done a lot of damage, lose their free choice as a punishment. The punishment is that they can no longer repent. Together with the gift of free choice, repentance is one of the most incredible gifts that G-d has given every single one of us; it allows us to change the past. 

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A person who embarks on the process of repentance with sincerity – including regretting the past, resolving not to do it again, desisting from doing it, and confessing our sins before G-d – can actually rewrite the past. But for people as evil as Pharaoh – who murdered newborn baby boys, ordering them thrown into the River Nile, who enslaved an entire nation, who acted with great chutzpah and treachery towards G-d and Moses – there comes a certain point where G-d says, if I let you repent now there is something unfair about it. It would be unjust to let Pharaoh wake up one day and repent and then be forgiven for all of his past sins. He can’t be given the way out. So G-d says, I am going to block the way from here on. He actually took away Pharaoh’s right to free choice so that when he would eventually die he would have to face full judgment before the Heavenly Court for all his evil actions.

Pharaoh is actually the exception which proves the rule, which is that every single person has free choice; Pharaoh simply lost it because he was so evil. But the Rambam raises another question: if G-d took away Pharaoh’s free choice, why does He send Moshe on a pointless mission? Why not just send the remaining plagues and free the Jewish people without having to put Moshe through this up-and-down with Pharaoh, when he knew Pharaoh’s answer would be no?

The Rambam says G-d wanted to show the world that when He takes away a person’s free choice there is nothing they can do to get it back; it’s gone forever.

That’s what happened with Pharaoh. And G-d wanted the whole world to know that Pharaoh’s free choice was taken away and that there was nothing Pharaoh could do to get it back. G-d wants us to know this, and it’s very important for our day-to-day lives: from the fact that G-d takes away free choice, we can learn free choice is a gift and not something we should take for granted. When we realise that it is something which can be taken away, we begin to appreciate it, in the same way that seeing someone on a ventilator makes us appreciate that breathing is a gift. When we look at what happened to Pharaoh, how he behaved so irrationally that he lost his freedom of choice, we realise that we dare not take free will for granted; we must appreciate it, for it is a gift and we need to understand how valuable it is.

Living with free choice

How do we appreciate freedom? The key to understanding this is actually the key to understanding how Judaism operates. On the one hand, Judaism is a philosophy, an ideology, an incredible intellectual system; on the other hand Judaism is a living wisdom, not merely wisdom which stays in the books and the ivory tower; we have to live according to it in our day-to-day lives, where it becomes part of who we are. For example, let us look at the fundamental principle of belief in G-d. There is an interesting question which is raised by one of the great rabbinic thinkers of the 20th century, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. He says that when the Rambam discusses belief in Hashem in his Sefer HaMitzvot, the book in which he catalogues the 613 commandments, the Rambam defines the mitzvah to believe in G-d as a mitzvah leha’amin, a mitzvah “to believe” that there is a G-d. But when the Rambam discusses belief in Hashem in his Laws of the Foundation Principles of the Torah, he says it is a mitzvah ley’dah, a mitzvah “to know” that there is a G-d. What is the difference between the two?

 Rav Soloveitchik explains that “to believe” is a philosophical, ideological, intellectual belief; “to know” is to live with it, to live by it, to incorporate it into our lives. Belief in G-d is a philosophical principle, but it is also a real-life, emotional, spiritual principle that we live with every single day. When we see a magnificent sunset, we can feel the artistic genius and mastery of G-d in creating a beautiful world. Rav Soloveitchik gives the example from Rabbeinu Bechayay, who says that when we look at the love between a mother and a child and we see how powerful that love is, we can feel G-d’s presence and can see His hand in everything. Belief in G-d is not something which is stuck in the books of philosophy, it is about feeling and seeing His presence in everything we do.

 Rav Soloveitchik says this is the same regarding the principle of free choice. On the one hand we have the philosophical belief of free choice; on the other hand we need to make it part of our day-to-day lives so that we appreciate it not only on an intellectual level but on an emotional and spiritual level as well. On a philosophical level, we can understand free choice: the Rambam explains in chapter 5 of the Laws of Repentance that G-d has given us mitzvot to do – there is good, there is bad this is what we should do, this is what we shouldn’t – and that the whole Torah only makes sense if we believe in free choice. Secondly, he says the defining quality of a human being – namely, what differentiates us from all other creatures that G-d created – is the freedom of choice. Animals can choose but only within a very limited range. They cannot override their instincts and they do not make moral decisions. A lion can choose to hunt the impala in this way or that, but he does not think about the pain he is inflicting on the impala nor does he try to find another food source, because that is not within its frame of reference. A lion is pre-programmed, human beings are not; we have free choice and we have the ability to override instinct, do the right thing, make moral choices, and choose between good and evil.

That is on a philosophical level. But on an emotional level, we need to live with free will in our day-to-day-lives, to live with the knowledge that G-d made us free, we make decisions and with those decisions come responsibilities. It is easy to deny free choice, to blame our DNA, our upbringing and all kinds of circumstances we use to excuse the decisions we make. But although we are influenced by all of these factors, ultimately we have free choice in every decision that we make.

Believing in free will means acknowledging that we have the ability to change

When the Rambam codified Torah law, he pulled the laws together from all of the discussions in the Talmud. The Talmud, as we know, is structured in a way that reads like a verbal debate; it is a record of all the debates and the oral tradition that was received from G-d on Mount Sinai. It flows freely like a conversation, moving from one subject to another. Therefore, for example, one can have a discussion of the laws of tzitzit in a few different places in the Talmud. One of the important questions to ask whenever we study the Rambam is under which category did he choose to place a particular discussion. Regarding our discussion, it is interesting to note that the Rambam chose to deal with the principles of free choice not in his Laws of Foundation Principles of the Torah where he deals with belief in G-d and all of the other philosophical principles, but rather in the Laws of Repentance. Why? 

Perhaps the reason the Rambam deals with the principles of free will in the Laws of Repentance is because repentance is about change, and we can only change if we believe we have the power to change. Conventional wisdom says a leopard doesn’t change his spots; this is who I am, I cannot change.  But to really believe in freedom means that we can look at our lives and say, we need to change, we need to improve, we need to do better – and we can. We need to do more mitzvot, find another path, and we can only do that if we really believe in freedom – not as an abstract, philosophical principle alone, but as something that we live with on an emotional and spiritual level every single day of our lives 

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Solo or in shul, plans afoot to keep spirits up on Yom Kippur

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“Yom Kippur is certainly going to be markedly different this year. I haven’t booked to go to shul, so I’ll be spending the time quietly at home. I don’t know how I’m going to make it uplifting. Usually I find the Kol Nidreh with the choir very uplifting, but now? Who knows?”

Glenhazel resident Sheryl Serebro’s Yom Kippur conundrum is probably experienced by a lot of us as Yom Kippur approaches. Under COVID-19, iconic experiences like kapparot, extensive fast-breaking meals, and moving choral performances will be conspicuously absent this year, leaving a gaping hole in the traditional yom tov experience for many of us.

While some shuls may be holding a service in some form, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar is going to demand no small amount of personal effort if it’s to be spent meaningfully. Nonetheless, members of our community are preparing to uplift themselves in various ways, from song and meditation, to contemplation and reminiscence.

“Yom Kippur is going to be incredibly different this year,” says Kayla Ginsberg, a student activist. “I’m used to long meaningful tefillot full of song and pouring my heart out to Hashem. While I’m still lucky enough to be going to shul, many aren’t able to go or partake in their usual traditions.

“It’s suddenly up to us to forge the tools to connect, and many are feeling lost and disconnected. However, life is as good as you make it, and the same goes for your tefillot. You have to know Hashem is there, regardless of whether you’re standing in a beautiful shul or an empty field.”

Some are opting to go to shul with renewed appreciation, and odd though the outdoor davening experience may be, Glenhazel resident Norma Mervis is excited at the prospect. “Being outdoors is quite exhilarating for me after my experience on Rosh Hashanah,” she says. “I felt a closeness to Hashem more than ever before.”

“Corona has made me appreciate my shul and davening with the community. I don’t think I’ll ever take for granted the opportunity to get closer to Hashem and experience davening in all its glory.”

With services shortened considerably, actuary Gregg Horwitz admits to feeling conflicted in his emotional attachment to the yamim noraim this year.

“In light of COVID-19, I look at Yom Kippur with a ‘just get through it’ mentality,” he says. “I’ll be attending shul services, but it’s the length and intensity of the service that often provide the distraction to enable an easy and swift fast for me. Having a shortened service means that I’ll have to endure the day with methods not yet attempted, which is unsettling to say the least. This Yom Kippur is about resilience for me.”

People who’ve opted to remain at home have also developed new ways to approach the chag. Among these are Temple Israel Heritage Chairperson Reeva Forman, who will be spending the day with Jonathan, David, and Bonnie (her two cats and dog).

“My dining room has become my religious space, filled with traditional prayers, songs, tears, and smiles,” says Forman. “I’ll be joining my voice with others, reaching through the ceiling and yearning to connect with Hashem.”

For copy-editor Kevin Levy and student Megan Gordon, meaningful meditation will be key to the day, while clinical psychologist Dorianne Weil looks forward to sitting with her family and having courageous conversations, acknowledging what they love and appreciate about each other.

“We will also be talking about the times we felt hurt, misunderstood, or dismissed,” she says. “We will introspect and access the hurt we have caused, and pledge to ourselves to do better, to be more mindful, and create the space to forgive ourselves and step into the new year with compassion and resolve.”

As a newly married man, chorister Gary Aberman will be spending Yom Kippur for the first time in 15 years not singing in a choir but davening with his wife at home.

“In previous years, I was in the routine of arriving at shul before everyone, doing my security shift, going to sing, driving home, watching series only to go to bed, wake up to check the time, watch series, go to shul, sing, and wait for Yom Kippur to be over and break the fast with family,” Aberman says.

“This year, I have chosen to find kavod in my own home with my wife where I will be focusing on my davening and not on the time. I won’t be checking football scores or how many pages till the end. I’ll be saying thank you for everything I have right now.”

In the absence of a choir, some will fill their homes with song. Nursery school teacher Stacey Lipschitz intends to uplift her mood by singing and davening from her balcony, while Bev Goldman, the national president of the Union of Jewish Women of South Africa, and her husband, Dennis, the choirmaster of Pine Street Shul, will be conducting their own at-home service.

“Although we won’t be able to participate in the communal yizkor service, I’m already anticipating feeling even closer to my roots, feeling closer to Hashem, feeling more spiritual and more at peace with myself,” says Goldman.

“No interruptions, no interference, just the two of us surrounded by a feeling of gentle togetherness and calmness.”

Others such as the Angel Network’s Glynne Wolman and retired serviceman William Bergman intend to spend the day in reflection with family.

“As one grows older, one seems to reflect on the past,” Bergman says. “My most cherished memory of Yom Kippur is going to and sitting in shul with my father. Unfortunately, I can’t go to shul with my family as my children and their families are in Canada, but my heart is with them.”

He recalls a time during his career as a soldier when a young rabbi doing his national service flew up with the troops in a C130 transport aircraft to Grootfontein, carrying a Torah so that he could hold a service there for the Jewish servicemen who couldn’t get home for the chaggim.

Bergman also recalls growing up in Bloemfontein, when the original shul used to be so full over the chaggim that there was an overflow into the adjacent shul hall.

“I think about that old shul being across that way from a local dairy that made the most delicious ice cream and as children, we used to gallish [crave] an ice cream while trying to fast. That was the main conversation, which of course made fasting worse!”

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Avinu Malkeinu singing sensation has SA roots

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A six-year-old boy singing an English and Hebrew version of Avinu Malkeinu with passion and gusto has gone viral around the world. This story, however, begins in Durban and Cape Town, where his mother, Nina Shapiro, grew up and raised her adopted sons before emigrating to Perth, Australia.

The video shows Benjamin “Bibi” Shapiro singing, “I’m sorry for all I did wrong … I’ll try to be better forever and ever … I’ll try to be, the best that I can be … I’ll try to do what’s right and be the best I can be,” before switching to the Hebrew words ofAvinu Malkeinu with aspirit far beyond his years.

Even though his mother tries to keep her children off social media, the clip unintentionally went viral, and she has been interviewed internationally.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report after Rosh Hashanah, Shapiro admitted “Interviews don’t fill me with joy, but South Africa will always be the home of our heart, and I can’t agree to speak to American and Australian publications and not ‘my own’.”

She adopted her sons as a single mom, and they attended Chabad of the West Coast’s Sinai Academy for three years before they emigrated. “I feel a close connection, it’s an amazing school, and we were all very happy there,” she said. She credits Sinai Academy and the school her son attends in Perth – Carmel School – with developing his love for Judaism.

It was never her intention for Bibi’s clip to be in the public eye. “It was a massive shock. I sent it to family and the boys’ Jewish Studies teacher at school. She taught him the song, so I thought it would give her a lot of nachas. She asked if she could share it with other teachers. Soon after, a friend said she saw it on another friend’s Facebook page, and asked if she should request that they take it down. I said, ‘yes please’, and thought that would be that.

“Then I got a message from a friend in Boston and another in Cape Town – it just got bigger and bigger. By the end of the day, I realised asking people to take it down wouldn’t make a difference. I was really upset. But after speaking to people I trust, I got greater clarity. I realised this was obviously Hashem’s plan – he wants the message to reach the world in this way, and I had no choice.”

Although Perth isn’t under lockdown, Shapiro believes that a video of a Jewish boy singing with devotion and joy will give people a lot of comfort at this time. Another factor in its popularity could be that people are looking for connection while they celebrate the high holidays alone. Bibi being a person of colour could also be a factor in people wanting to know more.

“When I adopted the boys, we adopted each other. I always imagined my own biological genetically Jewish children, so what has been amazing has been to discover that their neshomas [souls] are Jewish – they just came to me in a different way,” Shapiro said.

In a year in which the Black Lives Matter movement has dominated headlines and many have championed the rights of black Jews, Shapiro said, “If I had to have a message for the world, it’s that Jews don’t come in a box, they do look different, and everything isn’t always as it seems.”

She hasn’t experienced any objection to her family and her children’s race. “I’ve only ever received support. I’ll never forget, I was in Durban, going to shul for the first time with Bibi, and I was terrified how people would respond. I had spoken to Rabbi Pinchas Zekry, who said I had his full support, but I was still worried. As I was walking in, another rabbi, Rabbi Mark Friedman, came up to me and said a brocha over Bibi and kissed his forehead. I cried. It was profoundly supportive. It’s carried on like that.”

Shapiro always imagined she would have girls, “so when I learned that the adoption agency had matched me with a boy, I thought, ‘well he will be able to sing in shul on the bimah’. My mother was very musical, and I wanted to pass that on. It’s always been a dream of mine, and Bibi is musical in talent and in his neshoma. He’s always been connected to Jewish music. From when he was a baby, he responded to it.” In the video, one can see he’s not just reciting words, he puts his whole soul into the song.

Since the clip went viral, South African Jewish singing sensation Choni G (Choni Goldman), the brother of Sinai Academy Principal Zeesy Deren, has offered to work with Bibi in creating more music, and Shapiro has agreed.

“It’s like being invited to the queen for tea! It’s the highest compliment in the Jewish musical world. He created an acapella backing track, and when Bibi heard it, his eyes shone. The next day, they did a video call. Although Bibi is very shy, Choni was great with him, and made a video using clips of their interaction.” This has also been shared widely.

Says Goldman, “When I first saw the video, I thought ‘he’s adorable and can keep a key’. He has a huge personality, and is very talented without realising it. He sings with meaning and passion. I’m willing to nurture this if he wants to explore it further.” They may do more collaborations in the near future.

Although Bibi doesn’t understand social media and doesn’t know about the video, he knows “something is up”. People come up to him, although I tell them he doesn’t know about the video. “He knows that his singing makes me really happy, and has made a lot of other people happy. He knows that Hashem has given him this gift, and he mustn’t be shy to share it.”

Shapiro says it’s important that parents understand that any content they share of their children can go viral, even if intentions are good.

So, what’s next for the young singing sensation? “Both my boys and our rabbi’s son sang Avinu Malkeinu on the bimah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. It was exactly what I envisioned when I heard I was getting a boy,” says Shapiro. “It’s like coming full circle. The whole congregation was crying. It was so beautiful. I would like that to continue.”

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The meaning of life can be found in a sukkah

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Every Jewish holiday plays an integral part in our lives. Be it Pesach or Shavuot, every chag on the Jewish calendar colours our daily lives in some way and shapes our perspective of current events.

But if ever there was a chag with the potential to help us get through COVID-19, it’s Sukkot.

Coming after the intensively holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Sukkot is sometimes overlooked and its significance underappreciated.

We tend to associate the holiday with flimsy constructions erected outside our homes and a fruit that closely resembles a lemon, but there’s much more to this holiday relevant to our lives under a pandemic than we might think. We just have to look to the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes).

Every Jewish festival is characterised by the reading of a particular Biblical text, which enhances the day by capturing certain feelings or themes which define what the day is really about.

On Pesach, we read Shir Hashirim (the Song of Songs), an allegory of the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people. During Shavuot, the Book of Ruth is read, a narrative set in the harvest period, and which relates to the festival because Shavuot also occurs at the time of the spring harvest.

On Sukkot, we read Kohelet. Written by King Solomon between 450 to 200 BCE, the book grapples with what it means to be human, and the meaning of life. For the greater part of the narrative, however, the text is seemingly characterised by sobriety and scepticism, its opening lines asserting that everything in the world is utterly futile.

For all his accomplishments, wealth, and success, Solomon repeatedly implies that no matter what man does, his efforts will always prove to be in vain, making prominent a profoundly pessimistic premise that seems at odds with the celebratory nature of Sukkot.

However, there could be more to the text than we realise. For if we look closely at what Solomon says, we may recognise that the solution to the futility of life is to embrace such a reality and learn to live in the here and now. It all begins with looking beyond ourselves.

“Kohelet could almost have been written in the 21st century,” says Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom. “Here is the picture of ultimate success, the man who has it all – the houses, cars, clothes, adoring women, the envy of others – he has pursued everything this world can offer from pleasure to possessions to power to wisdom.

“Yet, surveying the totality of his life, he can say only, in effect, “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.”

Kohelet’s failure to find meaning is directly related to his obsession with the “I” and the “Me”, says Sacks. The more he pursues his desires, the emptier his life becomes.

“Of all things people have chosen to worship, the self is the least fulfilling,” he says. “A culture of narcissism quickly gives way to loneliness and despair.”

Many of us have experienced something not unlike Solomon’s situation since the onset of COVID-19. Our priorities have been rearranged, our focus has shifted, and any belief that the self lies at the centre of everything has been proven utterly absurd. We have discovered the importance of helping others, living in the present, and finding meaning in the daily lives we so often overlooked and perhaps even took for granted.

Solomon himself ultimately finds his greatest comfort in the simplest of things, and this is perhaps what the festival of Sukkot is really about.

The sukkah itself reinforces this idea. A simple dwelling that cannot withstand strong winds, it represents the fragility of life but also champions the simplicity of the things that really matter in our everyday lives, whether we’re living through a pandemic or not.

“The power of Sukkot is that it takes us back to the most elemental roots of our being,” says Sacks. “It’s the time we ask the most profound question of what makes a life worth living.”

Having prayed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to be written in the book of life, Kohelet forces us to remember how brief life actually is, and how vulnerable.

“Joy, the overwhelming theme of the festival, is what we feel when we know that it’s a privilege simply to be alive, inhaling the intoxicating beauty of this moment amidst the profusion of nature,” he says.

The fact that Jewish tradition maintains that the final day of Sukkot is when our judgement for the coming year is actually sealed is therefore no coincidence. Called Hoshana Rabbah, it’s considered the final day of the divine judgement in which our fate is determined. If we learn from Sukkot and the lessons of King Solomon, it stands to reason that our lot for the coming year is finalised at the end of Sukkot.

Only after having fully appreciated what we have, the lives we lead, and the fragility of life, can we fully appreciate the signing of our lot for the year ahead.

Sukkot is therefore seemingly the Jewish response to our pandemic reality. We now know what it is to live with insecurity, to develop appreciation for our friends and family, and to find joy in the everyday. The simplicity of sitting in a sukkah (built outdoors where fresh air and social distancing are more possible than anywhere else) can perhaps help us grasp the opportunity we have been afforded to better appreciate what we have, and recognise who is really in charge of our lives.

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