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Sage words from the Baal Shem Tov

If you would ask me, “Rabbi, what’s your favourite story ever?”, it would be the following little tale which I hope will resonate with you too, especially in the unusual times we find ourselves in.

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Religion

RABBI LEVI AVTZON

But first, let’s state the obvious. Our generation has never confronted the challenge we are all in together – alone. This is uncharted territory for modern man and woman.

As I write these words, we have no idea when shuls and schools will reopen. I’m sitting at my home computer (trying to avoid the screaming kids), less than 100 hours into lockdown. I think I’m already losing my sense of time and equilibrium.

Oh, and then there’s Pesach atop of all that. That beautiful holiday full of tradition, much of which won’t grace our tables this year due to social distancing (I prefer “physical distancing”), the separation of generations, and the avoidance of large gatherings.

There are so many feelings out there. But if I had to guess the two most potent feelings across the community it would be:

First, fear of the unknown; second, a deep sadness and compassion for all those left alone during this time, especially those who need the support and love of their families and community such as the elderly, the sickly, and those who live alone.

Which leads me to this little tale:

One of the greatest revolutionaries in Jewish history was a man known as Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem Tov, in English, Rabbi Yisroel Master of the Good Name (1698-1760). He was the founder of the Chassidic movement. (Indeed, all Chassidic movements across the world – and there are many of them – trace themselves back to the Baal Shem Tov and his ideas.)

Numerous wondrous stories are reported about him. The story I’ll share with you isn’t about wonders and miracles. It’s not even so much about him, rather it’s about his wise father.

By the time the Baal Shem Tov was five years old, both his mother, Sarah, and his father, Eliezer, had passed on. He was then raised in a local orphanage until he joined a group of mystics in his adolescent years.

Before his death, Eliezer called his son, Yisroel, to his bedside and told him, “Yisroel, know and remember throughout your life that the almighty G‑d is always with you. Remember not to fear anything and anyone except for your Father in heaven! And remember, also, to love from the very core of your heart every single Jew, regardless of who or what they are!”

That’s it. That’s the story. Oh, what a story!

In his adulthood, Rabbi Yisroel would go on and change the world through the power of his revolutionary insight and passionate love, and all his ideas were based on those two simple truths: to fear nothing and no one except Hashem, and to love each Jew no matter what and no matter who.

This story has given me encouragement during the most challenging moments. When I find myself in moments of sadness, pain, hurt, frustration, grief, or anger I try to bring that story to the forefront of my consciousness. I imagine a tiny five-year-old boy who had already lost his mother and was now about to lose his father. A five-year-old boy.

And his saintly and wise father turns to him and says, (I’ll put it in my own words), “My child, there’s so much in life that’s not in your control, but do you know who controls it? Not the government, not the society, not even an uncooked bat in Wuhan, China. When we say that life isn’t in our control that isn’t a statement of defeatism, but rather a declaration of faith. The creator runs this world, and He is the only one to turn to, not with ‘fear’ but with ‘awe’. Turn to your Father in heaven.

“My dear, we believe in divine providence and how nothing can happen in this world if G-d doesn’t will it. Remember that G-d is full of love, so be calm, and have faith. It will be ok.

“And my child, in times of pain and suffering, you might choose to be a victim, to blame, or to simply avoid society and enter a cave. My boy, never forget to love. Love everyone with the very core of your heart. Show compassion, empathy, don’t judge, don’t look down on the other. Treat them like they are the beloved children of the creator, which they truly are.

“When you meet your fellow, show them how much you care, first and foremost, about their physical needs. Do they have food? Can they pay their rent? Can they afford medical aid? Help them!

“Only after you show them unconditional love and concern for their material well-being, then you must show them more love by sharing your spirituality with them. Teach them, guide them, inspire them, help them to ignite the fire in their soul, help them see the beauty and warmth of Judaism. And you will succeed, because you have done it with love and without judgement.”

That’s the story my friends. It’s a story for our times.

Fear nothing and no one. Hashem is in charge. Let go, and let Him in. We are in His loving hands. Don’t let panic take over. Don’t let the word “corona” become the topic of your every conversation. Keep on living. Keep on believing. Study. Develop good habits. Do the things you never have time to do. Read a million books to your kids or grandkids (on Skype or Zoom). Keep your world spinning.

And love. Let your heart burst with love and compassion. Reach out to the lonely. Show them how much we value them. Hug your loved ones even tighter than before. Don’t waste this quarantine time on bickering and petty fights. Cherish the moments that you have with the nearest and dearest to your heart.

This will be a time that we will speak of for many years. I pray that our memory of this era will be full of serenity and love.

Chag sameach to you!

  • Rabbi Levi Avtzon is the rabbi of Linksfield Shul.

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Religion

Finding faith in the hippo

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This week’s parsha details the laws of kashrus. The Torah makes a brave statement by enumerating the one and only animal that has split hooves but doesn’t chew the cud. It’s a “brave” statement, because if a human being wrote the Torah, how would they know that the pig is the only one on the “face of the planet” with this characteristic?

Moses was born in Egypt, spent some time as a fugitive in Ethiopia, and died somewhere near modern-day Jordan. If we presume that he was the author of the Five Books without any divine inspiration, and he sucked the whole thing out of his left thumb, then how could he be so confident that there wasn’t a marsupial or wallaby in the furthermost corners of the planet that didn’t have at least one of these characteristics? This was almost 3 000 years before anyone even knew there was an Australia. If he was inventing the whole religion, he would have taken the more prudent course of being rather vague. He wouldn’t have blatantly listed the only four exceptions “from all the animals on the earth”.

With this great piece of Torah veracity in my mind, my faith was shaken when, on a trip to London’s Natural History Museum, (I know, it’s a pretty nerdy thing to do), I discovered that there was a hoofed animal, classified by zoology, that seemed to be an exception “overlooked” by the Torah – the hippo. It’s classified as an “ungulate”, a split-hoofed animal without a ruminant stomach that isn’t listed in the Torah as another exception!

I thought about this problem for a while, and then the solution came to me. Why should we allow zoology to dictate the classification of animals? The more I thought about it, the more I realised that hippos don’t have hooves like a pig or cow, they have toes (like camels). I know it’s more fancy to talk about ungulates, phylum, and genus. It even makes us look clever, but if we are really honest with ourselves, we won’t let zoological classifications stand in the way of our emunah in Hashem and His Torah.

Shabbat shalom

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Religion

Let’s start talking about Pesach

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For the past few weeks, my family and I have been doing something really special. We’ve been getting together every Sunday night, sitting around the table, and going through the Pesach Haggadah.

It’s just me, Gina, and our children – our eldest, Mordi, his wife Avigayil, and Levi, Shayna, and youngest Azi. We have supper together, and then we get stuck into the Haggadah, discussing, debating, sharing as a family, covering everything from the four sons, the four questions and the ten plagues, to matzah, maror, and the four cups of wine.

It has been a truly memorable experience. We started this family tradition a few months ago, setting aside the Sunday night slot to connect as a family and share Torah ideas. It’s an open forum, a space for every member of the family to express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions. We’ve covered the Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith and the weekly parsha, and now, most recently, the Haggadah.

Going through the Haggadah, which tells the story of the Jewish people and goes to the very heart of who we are as Jews, has been particularly special. We’ve fine-tuned our understanding of the story, and gained so many new insights and ideas. Just as importantly, we’ve grown closer as a family, and feel more connected to each other and Hashem. Now, as we head towards Pesach, we all feel that this is going to be a dramatically different seder experience. Our mindset is different.

The Pesach seder is perhaps the formative Jewish experience. The seders we had as kids seem to stay with us. Even as we grow older, we recollect them fondly and vividly. It’s so much more than a ceremony, a procession of rituals, it’s the rich soil in which our families and our very Jewish identity are formed.

Of course, as we grow older, there’s the temptation, given how familiar the story is, to slip into autopilot on seder night. But if we prepare, we can avoid this and enter the seder charged with inspiration and filled with rich new perspectives. In doing so, we can transform it into an incredibly powerful spiritual and emotional experience that changes us, that truly frees us from our tired routines and habits and brings us closer to one another, to G-d, and to our true selves. A rebirth in the deepest sense.

That’s why I would like to call on all of us to start these meaningful family conversations in preparation for Pesach, to discuss the ideas and themes and get a deeper understanding of the seder itself. Of course, we need to prepare our homes – cleaning and cooking are incredibly important because they help us to fulfil all the mitzvot of this special chag and ensure we have a proper, kosher Pesach. But the seder, too, needs preparation, and the more we prepare for it, the greater the experience is going to be.

There’s something that can help you get the process started. My family and I were so excited and inspired by our Sunday night learning sessions, we decided to record our Haggadah discussions. We’ve turned these recordings into a special Pesach series, called The Goldstein Family Podcast, which you can access via my website or wherever you get your podcasts. The sessions have been cut and edited into eight episodes ranging from 10 to 30 minutes each to make them as accessible as possible.

There’s not much time left before Pesach, but I would like to encourage you to devote some time to preparing for the seder, and our podcast can be a good place to start. Even just a couple of hours can make all the difference to your seder.

Especially at this time, after a year of being battered by a pandemic, we need the healing, the meaning, and the deep inspiration of the seder more than ever – the message of faith in Hashem, connection to generations past, the sense of rootedness it gives us in an uncertain world.

Let’s take this opportunity to prepare so that we can connect with the ancient words of the Haggadah – with the great origin story of our people – in ways we’ve never done before.

Gina and I wish you all a chag kasher v’same’ach – a beautiful Pesach – and deeply meaningful, enriching seders.

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Religion

Is antisemitism good for the Jews?

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One of the traditional songs from the Pesach Haggadah which has become hugely popular in recent years is Vehi Sheamdah. An original version composed by Yonatan Razel was turned into a mega hit by Yaakov Shwekey, and was named Song of the Decade in Israel.

The passage in English reads, “And it is this that has stood by our fathers and us. For not just one alone [Pharaoh] has risen against us to destroy us, but in each and every generation they rise against us to destroy us and the holy one, blessed be He, saves us from their hand!”

What is meant by the opening words, “vehi” as in “it is this that has stood by us”? What does “this” refer to? The simple meaning seems to be that it follows on the previous paragraph in the Haggadah where we read, “Blessed is He who keeps His promise to Israel.”

It refers to G-d’s promise to redeem the Children of Israel from Egyptian exile. According to commentary, it also refers to G-d’s ongoing promise to redeem us from all our exile and persecution, including the final redemption at the end of days.

This promise has sustained the Jewish people throughout all the dark and difficult days of our long and tortuous history. We have always believed and trusted in G-d’s promise that, in the end, it would all come right.

That’s the simple meaning. But a few years ago, I had a brain wave of a rather alternative interpretation. Later, I was gratified to see the same idea in the writings of earlier rabbis much more learned than I.

What occurred to me was that the Haggadah may have been giving us another message as well. The very fact that “in every generation they rise against us to destroy us” is itself what has stood by us and given us the strength to persevere. Antisemitism, and the fact that in spite of all the existential threats we as a people have suffered, we have survived, all bearing testimony to the Almighty’s watchful eye which continues to guide us through our special providential mission on earth.

Jews and non-Jews alike have marvelled at our miraculous survival. Over 300 years ago, King Louis XIV of France asked the philosopher, Pascal, to give him proof of the existence of G-d. Pascal famously replied, “Why the Jews, your majesty, the Jews!”

Our tiny nation’s survival while all the greatest empires of the world have come and gone remains powerful confirmation that there is a higher power ensuring our continuity and destiny.

Indeed, there is a strong argument to suggest that antisemitism has been good for the Jews. The French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, made that point in his book Anti-Semite & Jew. History records that under regimes that persecuted us, we remained steadfastly Jewish, whereas under more enlightened, liberal forms of government, we became comfortable in our newfound freedom, gradually embracing a welcoming but dominant culture and forfeiting much of our own.

Back in the early 19th century, Napoleon was conquering Europe and promising liberty and equality for all. When he squared up against Russia, many Jewish leaders sided with him, hoping he would finally bring an end to Czarist persecution and extend to Russian Jewry full civil rights. However, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, thought differently. He actively opposed Napoleon, and even had his Chassidim assist in intelligence gathering for the Russian army.

When his colleagues challenged him and questioned his apparent lack of concern for the well-being of his own people, he argued that while Napoleon might be good for the Jews materially, his victory would result in spiritual disaster. Tragically, the record proves him correct. Minus the Little Emperor, Russian Jews remained staunchly Jewish, while French Jewry virtually vanished.

How many Jewish Rothschilds are left in the world? G-d knows we could have used them. Most of French Jewry today hails from North Africa. The originals are few and far between.

And the American experience confirms beyond a shadow of a doubt that freedom, democracy, and equal rights, while wonderful blessings for Jews for which we should be eternally grateful, also present a profound challenge to our Jewish identity and way of life. In the melting pot of the United States, Jews have integrated so successfully, they are virtually disappearing!

Back in the 1970s, when I was working with Jewish university students, we were struggling to break through a wall of icy indifference towards Judaism. It was so frustrating, that my colleagues and I even considered going onto campus in the dead of night to paint a few swastikas on the student union building!

Maybe that would jolt them out of their apathy. Of course, we never actually did it, but the fact that the thought crossed our minds demonstrates how external threats have a way of making Jews bristle with pride and righteous indignation.

We see it today as well. Outside many shuls around the world, you will find young men and women who volunteer to do security duty. Many of them are never seen inside the shuls they protect. Going to shul and praying isn’t their thing. But when enemies of Israel threaten Jews, these brave young people respond as loyal, committed Jews.

It appears that as repugnant as antisemitism may be, in a strange, perverse sort of way it may have contributed to the stubborn determination of Jews over many generations to stand up for their convictions and live by the principles of our faith no matter what.

So, when you sing Vehi Sheamdah at your Pesach Seder this year, instead of bemoaning our enemies’ hatred for us, find the positive side. Vehi – this very hostility and the never-ending attempt at our annihilation – has only served to strengthen our resolve to remain steadfastly Jewish. Indeed, it has stood us well!

  • Rabbi Yossy Goldman is the rabbi at Sydenham Shul, and the president of the South African Rabbinical Association.

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