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Shofar alerts us to present possibilities, not future peril

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Parshot/Festivals

Nothing quite heralds the arrival of Rosh Hashanah like the sweet, hopeful scent of jasmine. This year, however, not all the sweetness of jasmine, apples, and honey is quite enough to do away with a certain quiet gloom that ripples through our community, gloom which comes from the devastating third wave to the terrifying protests, not to mention load-shedding and other perennial South African challenges of crime, poverty, and service delivery. I have heard many a conversation recently where the underlying claim has been, “There is no future here.”

We are lucky to have an Yda Walt print in our home of one of the main shuls that once thrived in Kovno, Lithuania. Its beautiful black-and-white image reminds me of where we came from, how our Jewish world was destroyed and then born again in South Africa, giving rise to a community that’s hailed as one of the most supportive and effective in the Jewish world. Although I don’t turn a blind eye to the complex problems facing our society, I’m struck by how we re-created this very special reality in South Africa, and that each one of us has the chance to continue to be co-creators of this reality – or not. Either way, language matters. The statement, “there is no future here”, isn’t just destructive to people who choose to remain here, it’s also not a Jewish way of seeing things.

At no time is this more prescient than on Rosh Hashanah. Although we reflect on our past year through the high holy days, Rosh Hashanah invites us into evaluation of where are now, in the present moment, and compels us to be open to the possibilities of life, instead of claiming to pronounce on the future. Indeed, every action in the present moment is within our control, while the future is in the hands of G-d.

The Talmud teaches that we blow the shofar at this time “le’arbev hasatan” (to confuse the accusing angel). As we present our good deeds to G-d, the accusing angel tries to divert G-d by pointing out our flaws. However, something about the shofar’s call distracts the Satan, giving us the opportunity to present our case to G-d without, as it were, interruptions.

A Hasidic reading of the root of the word “Satan” turns the image of the accusing angel into something us moderns might relate to. The word for distraction in Hebrew is “listot”, which seems to share the same root as Satan. From a modern point of view, Satan could be regarded as the angel of distraction, who pulls us away from the present moment. Satan diverts our focus. Distraction can assume many forms: it can be endless scrolling through social media, it can be regret about the past, or endless worry about the future. Distraction pulls us from the “power of now”, to reference one of Oprah Winfrey’s favourite self-help gurus, Eckhart Tolle.

If Satan distracts, the simple, atonal and amelodious sound of the shofar is without distraction. Like a winter tree stripped of all its leaves, the shofar is rid of frills and reduced to essence. In its bareness, its sense of nothing, we are neither in the past nor in the future. If we can truly connect to the emptiness of its sound, anything becomes possible. The sound of the shofar never says, “There is no future”. Rather, it says, “Hayom harat olam” (Today, the world is conceived). With my actions, my thoughts, my attitude, I can participate in the unfolding of the world and in the shaping of my reality.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev says this is why Rosh Hashanah takes place at the end of summer, when the harvest granaries are full and the work has been done. He describes the spiritual state of such fullness using the paradoxical term of ayin (emptiness or nothingness). We have our harvest and all is complete. Berditchev explains it in the following way: it’s as if when we are bursting at the seams, there’s no space for the specifics of new life to enter. The concept of ayin is also a term for G-d. G-d is so filled with infinite possibility that G-d requires the specific wishes and hopes of humans to bring infinity – the ayin – into reality. Yitzchak explains that humans initiate the conception of the world each year. It’s our requests, our hopes, and dreams that reach into the ayin, the fullness of existence, and set in motion the particular responses of the universe, of the creator. The Esh Kodesh shares a similar idea. Citing the great Kabbalistic work of the Zohar, he says the work delatatah (of below) arouses the work of de’la’ilah (of above).

We aren’t in charge of what will happen in this or that country, we don’t know what will happen with viruses, or with dissident party factions. But as Jews, we work with an assumption that our deeds have an impact, and that our thoughts and beliefs can be self-fulfilling. Teshuva, tefillah and tzedakah, self-examination, introspection, and right action can reverse the evil decree. Rosh Hashanah consists of Jewish spiritual practices that open up possibilities instead of delimiting futures.

The ayin, the empty potential of Rosh Hashanah, presents to human beings a great spiritual invitation. Every time we hear the shofar, we can connect to that ayin and bring it down into our world in specifics. It’s deeply moving to consider the largely Lithuanian Jewish community which transplanted to South Africa and re-birthed in the forms of schools, shuls, South African activists, Limmud conferences, and Jewish communal organisations.

Hayom harat olam – we have created new worlds in South Africa. So, let’s be careful before we utter, “there is no future here”. Rather, let’s set our thoughts, prayers, and intentions to appreciate what we have, and ask for what we want. Let’s tune in to the call of the shofar, and participate in the unfolding of a full and good future, wherever we may find ourselves.

•     Adina Roth is a clinical psychologist in private practice, and a teacher of Jewish Studies.

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OP-EDS

In the race against COVID-19, vaccination just the first lap

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About 200 years ago, the Torah giant, the Tiferet Yisrael (Rabbi Israel Lifshitz – 1782 to 1860) exhorted his followers to be vaccinated against smallpox. The sage was meticulous in fulfilling the mitzvah aseh (positive commandment) of the obligation to avoid the much greater threat to life posed by the disease even if the vaccine itself was far from harmless. In those years, smallpox vaccination was a rather hazardous procedure coming with a mortality of close to 1:1000.

It has been ascribed to the Tiferet Yisrael that he drew up a list of non-Jews who ought to be credited with olam habah (a future in the world to come). Top of his list he put the chosid, Yenner, (Edward Jenner) who developed the first human vaccine against smallpox at the close of the 18th century which saved millions of lives down the years. About 200 years later, that virus was eradicated from the planet by global vaccination.

So, where are we now with our present pandemic – the COVID-19 pandemic? What could the future light at the end of the tunnel look like?

Our current travails with the COVID-19 pandemic are due to a new virus, SARS-Cov-2, introduced into the human population just less than a couple of years back. This is a new pandemic, against which new vaccines were developed at an unprecedented breakneck speed to prevent the resulting new disease. It was a triumph of advanced modern science to develop new vaccines within a year of discovering the causative virus in order to address this formidable new pandemic with urgency. Technologies were employed which had never previously been used for human vaccines. To add to this bewildering mix came the internet and pervasive social media – valuable tools for disseminating important public-health messages, but an equally sinister vehicle for spewing misinformation, conspiracies, and mistrust and, in no small measure, contributing to confusion, anxiety, and, unfortunately, vaccine hesitancy.

So, where do we stand on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 5782 (2021) in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic? As of 24 August (by the time you read this these figures will be quite a bit higher) more than eleven million doses of vaccine have been administered in South Africa with more than 21% of the adult population being vaccinated. Even now, the effectiveness of the vaccination programme is starting to be felt with a small, yet significant, reduction in serious COVID-19 disease and hospitalisation in the country.

What is our expectation for controlling the pandemic with vaccination? It’s interesting that when we look back at the earlier days of the pandemic last year, the scientific community thought that the SARS-Cov-2 virus was as menacing as any new pandemic was feared to be, but that it would turn out to be no more complicated than measles or polio to combat and conquer. We hoped, as with measles and polio, that it wouldn’t take long to develop an effective vaccine to conquer this newcomer.

But that was before the virus uncannily demonstrated its ability to mutate and generate new variants which could escape the protection afforded by vaccination. In turn, the Beta variant arrived, which was relatively resistant to vaccines, and after that, the highly contagious Delta variant, which is now also flexing its muscles for vaccine escape.

Common wisdom dictates that infectious diseases can be combatted in four phases. Phase one is the phase of containment. In this phase, the main damage caused by the offending infectious agent is brought under control. In the case of COVID-19, this is the phase reached by Western developed countries. High vaccine coverage has drastically reduced severe disease which, in the pre-vaccination era, resulted in wealthy countries being brought to their knees and unable to cope with the overwhelming number of critically ill patients, and mortuaries unable to keep pace with burying the dead. But, in spite of extensive vaccination campaigns, infection and illness still persist to a worrying degree. Fortunately, in the majority of cases, illness is mild. Where preventive measures are relaxed, as prematurely occurred in many countries such as Israel, the United States, and several European countries, there have been significant flare-ups. Most public-health authorities would accept this to be an interim phase, as restrictive measures still need to be in place to prevent epidemic waves of illness flaring up.

Only in a future phase two, the phase of control, may we contemplate returning to a pre-COVID-19 life. To enter into this phase, a second generation of advanced vaccines would have to be developed. They would need to provide more effective and durable immunity, be able to be effective against any new variants, and also be able to reduce transmission markedly from infected vaccinated persons. For the latter, the new vaccines will need to effect good immunity in the upper respiratory tract – mucosal immunity. There is, indeed, intensive research into developing this next generation of vaccines. In this phase, restrictions may be relaxed to the point of returning to our pre-2020 lifestyle. Infection and illness won’t totally disappear, but it will be at a tolerable level – perhaps much like the common cold or flu we all accept every winter season.

Phase three, the elimination phase, has been reached with a number of vaccine-preventable diseases. In this phase, infection and illness no longer occur in many parts of the world because of successful vaccination campaigns, although it remains present in other regions of the globe. Examples are polio, measles, and a number of other childhood infections. This phase cannot yet be contemplated for COVID-19. Our best expectation would be to enter into phase two, the control phase.

The ultimate phase four, the eradication phase, has been achieved only with one infectious disease – smallpox. About two centuries after the chosid, Jenner, invented the smallpox vaccine, and following unprecedented vaccination campaigns in every corner of the world, the disease and the virus were finally eradicated in 1980, and the virus formally declared to have been purged from the planet.

Meanwhile, let’s try make the present phase, phase one of COVID-19, as successful as possible. Get vaccinated, and continue to maintain all infection-prevention measures religiously so that we can safely look forward to phase two – maybe some time next year?

  • Barry Schoub is the chairperson of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 Vaccines. He is professor emeritus of virology at the University of the Witwatersrand, and was the founding director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. He writes in his personal capacity.

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Parshot/Festivals

This year, be the change your shul needs

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COVID-19 has drastically accelerated change in the way the world works – from a social, work, health, and travel point of view. Politics, economics, and social behaviour has shifted dramatically. And it has had a deep impact on our shuls.

As a community, we are at a watershed moment and have a unique, historic opportunity to rebuild our shuls – creatively and with renewed focus on purpose and meaning.

And we need to do it together.

Many have become comfortable davening at home, and have even begun to question the necessity of returning to shul. I would like to suggest why it’s not just important, but vital.

Praying in isolation can easily become a self-centred experience. Alone with our thoughts, we have only our own hopes and concerns to focus on. But when we pray with a minyan – when we are able to see each other and feel real empathy – we have the opportunity to pray for each other. We see the pain on a person’s face who is struggling financially. Or another person struggling with health complications. Or someone else struggling with a family issue. We are able to truly open our hearts to those around us, and pray for them in their moment of need. The Talmud tells us there is also tremendous personal merit in praying for others’ needs before our own.

And there is the undeniable spiritual power of davening in a minyan. Our sages explain that when we pray together, we come before Hashem not just on our own merit, but with the collective merit of the community – and, in fact, all of klal Yisrael. A minyan represents not just its members but links us spiritually to Jews around the world and across the generations. Our prayers are therefore exponentially more powerful. This is particularly important on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we come before our Creator in judgement, and need every merit we can get.

By praying in a minyan, we become part of something greater than ourselves. When we come to shul, we are contributing to the community. Just by being there, we create a newfound energy and vibrancy.

Particularly now. The pandemic has put great pressure on our shuls, and there is an enormous challenge – but also a great opportunity – to rebuild them to positions of strength, equalling and then exceeding what they were before the pandemic. To build a new, rich sense of community that inspires existing congregants and draws new people in.

And to do that we need to get involved, to be proactive in building the sense of community within our shuls. This means starting or joining shiurim; attending services both on Shabbos and during the week; participating in chesed activities – whether it’s making meals, visiting the sick, or reaching out to fellow congregants with messages of love and support; or contributing to the everyday running of the shul, sponsoring a brocha, or championing a new programme ourselves.

There’s a paradigm shift here. We need to start viewing ourselves not as clients of our shul, but as partners, active participants – not spectators, but players. Our relationship with our shuls shouldn’t be as a consumer weighing whether the product or service is of sufficient benefit to us; the decision to return to shul or daven at home shouldn’t be a cold cost-benefit analysis about what suits us better. We need our shuls. And our shuls need us.

Ultimately, it’s for our own good. Hashem has hardwired us to derive the greatest satisfaction, paradoxically, from moving beyond self-interest. Transcending the self – acting for the sake of the collective, contributing to a greater cause – is deeply fulfilling and deeply pleasurable. Coming back to shul and driving these changes is its own reward.

Among the great challenges society is going through during this pandemic is widespread depression and isolation, each reinforcing the other. And the greatest antidote to these twin challenges is to leave our isolation – to get out there and make a contribution. To get involved in the community. This is absolutely vital for both our own mental health and spiritual vitality, and our communal vibrancy.

Now, as we prepare to welcome in the year 5782, is the time to renew our shuls as active players, not spectators, and partners, not consumers. Ready to make a difference. Together.

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The day of judgement is a day of love

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I recently argued with a good friend. She always tries to be strictly objective in her assessment of her children. I objected. I feel strongly that my job as a mother isn’t to be objective about my children but always to see the good in them, to judge them favourably, and love them unconditionally.

This positivity bias toward my children is obvious and natural, but at the same time, I truly believe that life experience will teach them to be realistic and humble, that I don’t have to. All the encouragement, support, and love I can give them can only build them up and make them great.

This unconditional positive regard and acceptance can swallow up so many of their problems, so much of their self-doubt and negativity. It can charge my children with all the confidence and strength they need to face life’s challenges and make a success of their lives. I believe in them, and they know it. You’re entitled to your own parenting style, but this is mine, and I stand by it.

It occurs to me that this is also a model to understand our relationship with Hashem, who is like a parent to us. Too often, we approach Elul, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur with trepidation and fear. We become discouraged and demoralised, too mindful of our failings, too oblivious to our potential. This approach is valid if we believe that Hashem’s judgement of us is impartial – “objective” and unbiased. We could justifiably be afraid if we imagine that Hashem is coldly examining our thoughts and deeds and dispassionately attributing credit and blame.

But instead, I offer you the idea that the prevailing atmosphere of Elul is love. We are Hashem’s children, and He is not objective about us at all. At this time of year, when we are in Hashem’s presence, we can allow ourselves to feel loved, encouraged, and supported. We can believe that He sees so much more good in us than bad.

This attitude can inspire us to overcome our faults and weaknesses. Knowing that Hashem believes in us and wants us to succeed can enable us to conquer self-doubt and negativity. We’re not in a power struggle with Hashem, we aren’t His adversaries. He’s always helping us and supporting us. And in this light, on Yom HaDin, our day of judgement, we have little to fear.

We can feel safe in the knowledge that we all have the unfair advantage of being judged by our Loving Father in heaven, who believes in us. He regards each of us as a hero. He knows that our strengths can overwhelm our weaknesses. He wants only to reward us and help us succeed. Like the perfect parent, He judges us favourably, waits for us patiently, loves us unconditionally, allows us to grow up slowly, watches our choices, and gets much nachas from our growth!

Shana tovah uMetuka! May we all be written and sealed for goodness!

  • Rebbetzin Gina Goldstein has been speaking, teaching, writing, and volunteering in the South African Jewish community for more than 25 years. Together with her husband Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, she co-founded The Shabbos Project, Sinai Indaba, and Generation Sinai.

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