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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

Why we refuse to forget

Devarim is the parsha associated with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish national day of mourning. This Shabbos, we read the famous Haftarah of Chazon, the vision of Isaiah. And, next Thursday, we will recall the destruction of our holy temple nearly 2 000 years ago.

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Rabbi Yossy Goldman, Sydenham Shul

But why remember? The world cannot understand why we go on about the Holocaust, and that was only 75 years ago! For more than 19 centuries, we have been remembering and observing this event, and it has become the saddest day in our calendar. Why? Why not let bygones be bygones? It’s history. What was, was. Why keep revisiting old and painful visions?

They say that Napoleon was once passing through the Jewish ghetto in Paris, and heard sounds of crying and wailing emanating from a synagogue. He stopped to ask what the lament was about. He was told that the Jews were remembering the destruction of their Temple. “When did it happen?” asked the Emperor. “About 1 700 years ago,” was the answer. Whereupon Napoleon stated with conviction that a people who never forgot its past would be destined to forever have a future.

Elie Wiesel once said, “Jews never had history. We have memory.” History can become a book, a museum, and forgotten antiquities. Memory is alive, memories reverberate, and memory guarantees our future.

Even amidst the ruins, we refused to forget. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. As they were led into captivity, the Jews sat down and wept. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept remembering Zion.” What did they cry for? Their lost wealth, homes, and businesses? No. They cried for Zion and Jerusalem. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning.” They weren’t weeping for themselves or their lost liberties, but for the heavenly city and holy temple. Amidst the bondage, they aspired to rebuild, amidst the ruins, they dreamt of returning.

And, because we refused to forget Jerusalem, we did return. And, because we refused to accept defeat or accept our exile as a historical fait accompli, we have rebuilt proud Jewish communities the world over while our victors have been vanquished by time. The Babylonian and Roman destroyers of old are no more. Those nations became history while we, inspired by memory, emerged revitalised and regenerated, and forever it will be true that am Yisrael chai.

Only if we refuse to forget can we hope to rebuild one day. If we are to make our return to Zion successful and permanent, if our people are to harbour the hope of being restored and revived internationally, then we dare not forget. We need to observe our national day of mourning next Wednesday night and Thursday. Forego whatever entertainment options your COVID-19 lockdown allows. Sit down on a low seat to mourn with your people, and perhaps even more importantly, to remember. And, please G-d, He will restore those glorious days, and rebuild His own everlasting house. May it be speedily in our day.

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Religion

Strength in diversity

The double portion of Matos/Massei deals with Moshe divvying up the land for the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

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Rabbi Ryan Goldstein, West Street Shul

Moshe didn’t choose land based on population size, demographics, or even agricultural usefulness, it was all decided through the casting of lots. Leaving such an arduous task in the capable hands of Hashem was the best way to dodge any farribles.

The Twelve Tribes, once settled in the Holy Land, could finally bring to fruition the mammoth task of being a light to the rest of humanity. As the prophet Isaiah foretells, “Ki mitZiyon tetzei Torah [Torah will come forth out of Zion].”

The harmonious unity of the Twelve Tribes in one centralised place was very much like an orchestra, with multiple sounds coming together to form a beautiful symphony.

In fact, that’s how Hashem prefers things. He displays this to us through the diversity of nature. If Hashem wanted only one way of doing things, then nature would have sufficed with one type of fauna. For example, there would be only penguins around or zebras. Forget about the beautiful and intricate multitudes of glorious beasts, big and small, that inhabit our earth and deep seas. Hashem makes it obvious that He wants unity to thrive out of diversity.

The same is true of the tribes of Israel. Hashem wasn’t happy with Israel being represented by an Avraham figure, an Isaac, or even a Jacob alone. And even though Jacob was called Israel, that wasn’t our legacy until we became bnei Yisrael (the children of Israel). Why? Harmony through diversity. The tribe of Yehuda was earmarked for kingship, Yosef were to be the politicians, Issachar could sit and learn Torah all day, Zevulun were the sea-faring merchants, Shimon were the educators, and Levi were the priests and temple workers. One man/identity couldn’t be all things.

And so it should be today. Our job is not to judge, and to be tolerant of the paths and journeys each person has in trying to make their legacy within the realm of Judaism and Torah.

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Religion

Visiting the sick good for our spiritual health

There is a fundamental mitzvah that is alluded to in this week’s parsha. When Moshe addresses the Jewish people in the stand-off against the rebel faction led by Korach, he says the following, “If these die like the death of all men, and the visiting of all men is visited upon them, then it is not Hashem Who has sent me.” (Numbers 16:29)

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Rabbi Yonatan Landau, Ohr Somayach Savoy

The Talmud in Nedarim 39B discusses these mysterious words. What is Moshe referring to when he says, “the visiting of all men is visited upon them”?

The Talmud explains that this alludes to the mitzvah of bikkur cholim – visiting the sick.

What exactly does this mitzvah entail, and what are some of the benefits we reap from it?

Torah authorities tell us that there are two main components of this mitzvah. First, we must take care of the needs of the ill person. This entails making sure that their health is looked after, and that they have adequate food and clothing. The Talmud recounts a story of the great Rabbi Akiva, who visited a sick student and took care to clean the room of its dust. This helped the student to recover. Furthermore, often the extra effort can make a difference to a person’s recovery.

Second, we must daven for the ill person. When we plead with Hashem, he recognises that the fate of the ill person is in divine hands, and thereby invokes divine compassion. Our rabbis teach us that as Hashem, so-to-speak, visits the sick, the divine presence is more concentrated above the bed of the ill person, and therefore it’s particularly powerful to daven in their room.

Those who perform this mitzvah acquire four main benefits.

In Parshas Vayeira, our rabbis teach that Hashem visited Abraham after his bris. This means that one who practices bikkur cholim is in fact acting like Hashem, who is the epitome of kindness and love. This is a fulfilment of the mitzvah of walking in Hashem’s way.

Performance of this mitzvah on a regular basis also helps you to become a kinder and more considerate person as the classic work, the Sefer ha-Chinuch, explains it – a person is influenced by the activities he involves himself in.

The commentator, Kli Yakar, adds that visiting the sick reminds us of our mortality, which serves as a stimulus to improve our ways.

Rav Avigdor Miller says that when we see others with an illness absent in ourselves, we acquire an appreciation for the myriad kindnesses that Hashem performs daily with our bodies.

Hashem should bless us with health especially in these difficult times, and let us try, albeit from a distance, to fulfil this vital mitzvah.

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