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Revolution then and now

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Parshot/Festivals

Chanukah in South Africa is weird, let’s face it. It’s a festival of lights in the middle of summer!

It’s a time to eat greasy latkes and doughnuts when you want to be on the beach eating granadilla ice lollies. And for a family-friendly holiday, waiting up to 20:30 in Cape Town to light isn’t exactly helping that bedtime routine, is it? So how does one take a holiday that makes complete sense in New York, London, Jerusalem, or pretty much any frosty northern hemisphere location, and make it meaningful in Cape Town or Umhlanga?

You see, Chanukah actually isn’t just about candles and doughnuts, it’s about revolution. It recalls a time that a band of Jews decided to say, “no” to the greatest empire of the time and heroically and against all odds won a hard-fought victory. That was 2 200 years ago, but today, it’s still revolutionary.

Daniel Gordis, one of my teachers when I was studying in yeshivah in Jerusalem, wrote in his book, Does the World Need the Jews? that, “Judaism’s claim is simple: Jews have a voice; it’s the voice that reminds the world of the power of the weak. Just as we survived as a powerless minority, we cry to the world: so, too, can you.”

The Jewish festival of lights is designed to bring light to those in need. Chanukah isn’t just a holiday in which Jews celebrate their own experience, but rather, a festival in which Jews seek to bring a message of hope to the disenfranchised everywhere. On Chanukah, Jews remind the weak and the impoverished everywhere that our own survival should give them cause for hope.”

Taken in that light, lighting the chanukiah is an act that has resonance not just for the Jewish people, but for all people, and at a time that South Africa and the world urgently needs it. As the plague of coronavirus shut the world down, what emerged was the inequality between those who had the ability to sit this out and those who didn’t. Those who had access to homes, data, laptops, and spare rooms to convert to offices or classrooms, and those who depended every day on the ability to get to a job or a donation to feed their family. And here we are at the end of 2020, still with no definite end in sight.

What’s the way out for those who don’t have the luxury of locking down? Gandhi is famous for saying, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members”, but 3 500 years before him, the Torah commanded protection for those who would be least able to protect themselves – from orphans and widows, strangers and migrant workers, to day labourers and the impoverished. How will the world step up to a growing gap between rich and poor? How will we break a cycle that means that those who have money to invest grow more wealthy, and those who don’t, have no way to break out of poverty?

Lighting a candle this Chanukah says “no” to that reality.

South Africans wait for their political leaders to show us the way forward, to give us a clear message of hope for the economy, to end corruption, for cross-party collaboration to get us out of recession, pandemic, and fear. Instead, we see and hear the same old tired lines from politicians squabbling while the country burns.

Lighting a candle this Chanukah says “no” to that reality.

As I write this, we mark the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. Statistics show that more than half of these attacks come from someone known to the victim. Forty percent of South African women have experienced intimate-partner violence in their lives. That means nearly half of all the women in this country (20 million women) have been attacked by the person who should be most responsible for protecting them.

Lighting a candle this Chanukah says “no” to that reality. Lighting the chanukiah now is a symbolic act of hope and of justice: hope that we will all overcome this plague, that our leadership will step up to govern for the good of all, and that as we emerge from this lockdown, it will be with a new world order, one that serves all the people.

It’s about bringing the world some light when it needs it most.

Chanukah is a message for all South Africans, Africans, and the world that where you are isn’t where you have to be forever, that with passion and faith, you can overcome seemingly unconquerable odds, that you can take a small light, share it with a few and in time, it can be a great light.

On the Shabbat of Chanukah we read from the book of Zechariah. In it we read a passuk (verse), (Ch. 4:6) often quoted that should inspire us all to action.

“Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit – said the eternal of hosts.”

May we have light and be light this Chanukah.

  • Rabbi Greg Alexander is part of the rabbinic team at the Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation.

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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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