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Seeing beside the seaside

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Religion

It’s no coincidence, our sages say, that much of the story of the exodus revolves around water.

Jewish babies are cast into the river Nile, and even the one who survives (the infant who will become Moshe) is saved, ironically, by being placed in that river. Years later, when asking Hashem at the burning bush for proof that his mission is, indeed, divinely sanctioned, Moshe is given three signs: his staff becomes a snake; his hand becomes leprous; and water turns to blood. This is an obvious allusion to the first plague that is shortly to strike Egypt, as the river Nile itself becomes blood.

Rabbi David Forman points out that this is more than simply a punishment for the Egyptians or even a demonstration of Hashem’s power, it’s recognition of the pain and trauma suffered by the Jewish people for so many years. They were all witness to their beloved children being swallowed by the river while the Egyptians pretended that all was normal; now the murders committed by Egypt have come back to haunt it.

Well, that took an unexpectedly dark turn! But the story of the exodus – like all stories in the Torah – needs to be understood in terms of real human experience beyond the childlike way in which we first learn it.

Water returns as the source of the frogs in the second plague, but comes finally as the coup de grâce when the Jewish people cross the Sea of Reeds, the Egyptian army is washed away, and they sing to Hashem of his might and their freedom. The Maharal of Prague teaches us that this is the moment in which the Jewish people were born as a nation – the Sea of Reeds being the metaphorical birth canal.

Why does water play such a central role? One reason is a Kabbalistic one – water represents chesed (kindness and giving) and the theme of Pesach, the festival of the exodus, is Hashem’s chesed. The Jewish people (our sages teach) didn’t “deserve” redemption, lacking as they were in spiritual merit, though they sorely needed to be saved. To help someone in such a situation isn’t justice but kindness and compassion – surely some of the most precious attributes Hashem has given us?

It’s human nature to be hopeful – even expectant – of kindness towards us, but to want to weigh others on the scale of justice. “You want a favour from me? After the way you treated me? I’m sorry, if I would help you, I would have to help everyone like you.”

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks taught us that chesed is “love as deed”, love not as a feeling in the heart but as a living expression of that feeling. Living in Cape Town, by die see, I enjoy the magnificent and ever-changing water of the ocean. We know, but need sometimes to be reminded, that with all that we are going through, Hashem is so very kind to us. This Pesach, may we all deeply feel Hashem’s love for us and for all of His creation, and may we all merit to channel that love on towards others.

Chag sameach!

  • Rabbi Sam Thurgood is the rabbi at Beit Midrash Morasha @ Arthur’s Road.

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Religion

The never-ending voice

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And Charlton Heston came down from Mount Sinai and gave us the ten commandments. Oops! Sorry, make that Moses. And he was carrying the tablets with the Big 10, repeated this week in Deuteronomy as part of Moses’ review of the past 40 years. He describes how G-d spoke those words in a mighty voice that didn’t end.

Rashi writes that Moses is contrasting G-d’s voice with human voices. The finite voice of a human being, even a Pavarotti, will fade and falter. It cannot go on forever. But the voice of the Almighty didn’t end, didn’t weaken. It remained strong throughout.

Is this all the great prophet had to teach us about the voice of G-d? That it was a powerful baritone? Is the greatness of the Infinite One, that he didn’t suffer from shortness of breath, that He didn’t need a few puffs of Ventolin? Is this a meaningful motivation for the Jews to accept the Torah?

Moses was the greatest of all prophets. He foresaw what no other prophet could see. Perhaps he saw his people becoming caught up in the civilization of ancient Greece, in the beauty, culture, philosophy, and art of the day. And they might question, “Is Torah still relevant?”

Perhaps he foresaw Jews empowered by the industrial revolution, where they might have thought Torah to be somewhat backward. Or maybe it was during the Russian Revolution, where faith and religion were deemed to be absolutely primitive.

Maybe Moses saw our own generation, with space shuttles and satellites, teleprompters and technology. And he saw young people questioning whether the good book still spoke to them.

And so, Moses tells us that the voice that thundered from Sinai was no ordinary voice. This was a voice that wasn’t only powerful at the time, it didn’t end. And it still rings out, still resonates, and speaks to each of us in every generation and every part of the world.

Revolutions come and go, but revelation is eternal. The voice of Sinai continues to proclaim eternal truths that never become passé or irrelevant. Honour your parents, revere them, look after them in their old age. Live moral lives, don’t tamper with the sacred fibre of family life. Dedicate one day every week, and keep that day holy. Stop the madness. Turn your back on the rat race, and rediscover your humanity and your children. Don’t be guilty of greed, envy, dishonesty, or corruption.

Are these ideas and values dated? Are these commandments tired or irrelevant? On the contrary. They speak to us now as perhaps never before.

Does anyone know this today better than us South Africans?

The G-dly voice has lost none of its strength, none of its majesty. The mortal voice of man declines and fades into oblivion. Politicians and spin-doctors come and go, but the heavenly sound reverberates down the ages.

Moses knew what he was saying. Torah is truth, and truth is forever. The voice of G-d shall never be stilled.

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Religion

Memory versus history

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Devarim is the parsha associated with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish national day of mourning. After Shabbos, we will recall the destruction of our holy temple nearly 2 000 years ago.

But why remember? The world cannot understand why we go on about the Holocaust, and that was less than 80 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. “Some 1 700 years ago,” was the answer. Whereupon Napoleon stated with conviction that a people who never forgot their past would be destined to forever have a future.

Elie Wiesel famously once said that Jews have 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 led the Jews into captivity, they sat down and wept. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept remembering Zion.” What did they cry of? 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 were not 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. Today, there are no more Babylonians, and the people who now live in Rome aren’t the Romans who destroyed the second temple. Those nations became history while we, inspired by memory, emerged revitalised and regenerated and forever it will be true that am Yisrael chai (the people of Israel live).

Only if we refuse to forget can we hope to rebuild one day. Indeed, the Talmud assures us, “Whosoever mourns for Jerusalem, will merit to witness her rejoicing.” We dare not forget. We need to observe our national day of mourning this Saturday night and Sunday. Forego the movies and the restaurants. 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 soon.

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Religion

Exile is a state of being

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In parshas Massei, the Torah traces our journey in the desert by listing all 42 camps that we passed through. This is a forerunner for Jewish history. Even the most superficial knowledge of Jewish history reveals that a large chunk of it has been spent in exile. Under the nations of the world, the Jewish people suffered immensely. How are we meant to understand this? There are four main points to appreciate.

Chazal tell us that the Jewish people are so beloved by Hashem, that when they were sent into exile for their sins, Hashem accompanied them. The greatest demonstration of His love is the fact that the Jewish people have survived almost 2 000 years of persecution and numerous attempts to annihilate us. So great is this miracle, it surpasses the collective miracles of the exodus of Egypt and our wandering in the desert and in the land of Israel.

Second, when the Jews wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, their survival was supernatural – they were wholly dependent on Hashem. He rained down bread from the sky, provided a well of water, and protected us with seven miraculous clouds. This was the education needed to sear into our consciousness the perspective that Hashem is the source of everything, and we must strive to fulfil His will.

Land, prosperity, and institutions of statehood were put at the Jewish people’s disposal not as goals in themselves, but as a means for the fulfilment of the Torah. When Jews lost sight of their true purpose and began to emulate the ideals of the nations around them, worshipping wealth and prosperity, they were deprived of those things that they had begun to worship, leaving their land with only the Torah to guide them.

Exile was meant, first and foremost, to benefit and perfect us. The Jewish people witnessed powerful empires disappear while we endured, devoid of might and majesty, but loyal to Hashem. How many times have Jews been offered a doorway to earthly pleasure and security if only they renounce their loyalty to G-d? How many times did Jews scorn the lure of wealth and pleasure and even sacrificed their most precious treasures in this world – their wives, children, brothers and sisters – for Hashem?

Chazal tell us that a third benefit of exile was to inspire conversion. Indeed, there have been many great converts in our history.

Fourth, the Jewish people were scattered throughout the world for our protection. If we were all under the jurisdiction of one ruler, he would attempt to destroy us all.

Exile isn’t just banishment from Israel. Exile is a state of being that also applies to individuals. Every person experiences tranquil periods when he finds it easy to learn Torah and pray with concentration. Yet when times are hard, he struggles. It’s specifically at these times that he mustn’t become empty of Torah and prayer, rather, he must strive to sanctify “desert” periods.

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