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The audacity of hope in 2021

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Religion

We will soon be singing the songs of Hallel at the Passover seder. Although we sing Hallel many times in the year, the line from Psalm 118 will hold particular resonance, “Min heMeitzar karati, Anani bamerchavya” (From the narrow place, I called out to G-d, G-d answered me with expanse).

The resonance of this line for Passover is that Mitzrayim (Egypt) shares the same linguistic root as Meitzar (the narrow place). On Pesach, when we sing: “Egypt our place of slavery and the experience of constriction are one”, it seems as if freedom occurs dramatically and suddenly. We cry out to G-d from places of tightness, and G-d answers with expansion, we are free.

This might be how we tell the exodus story thousands of years later. However, if we study the story of exodus, we can see that it was a case of stops and starts until we actually arrived at freedom.

From the first time that G-d announced to Moses that he would respond to the cries of the Israelites until we finally sang the Song of the Sea was a long road filled with ten plagues, increased suffering, and glimmers of hope, an interplay of light and dark.

This year marks exactly a year since South Africa went into its first hard lockdown. Indeed, it was announced a week before Passover. By Pesach, our entire world had changed. We had entered the narrow place.

Some of us had a seder alone, others were fortunate to have immediate family. Yet, we all felt the pain of being isolated from the ones we loved dearly and we were all confronted by the terror of not knowing how the fabric of our known lives would be touched by the virus.

As we contemplated our own fate, we realised that this would have devastating consequences for the most vulnerable in our societies.

One year later, many of us have lost beloveds. Many have lost their livelihoods. The inequalities in our society have deepened, and we shall have to work with this trauma for years to come.

At the same time, we are now in an interplay of light and dark. There is hope on the horizon. The vaccine has arrived. It’s being administered around the world and in South Africa. People are chanting prayers of gratitude.

Just this past week, I went to buy groceries and an elderly woman wearing a mask made a joke to me as I passed by. I looked at her with appreciation and awe to be able to connect with older people again, to have moments of togetherness.

Writer Mari Andrew characterises it well when she says, ‘’For now I want to embrace this finicky in-between season when one day feels like a setback and the next feels like a leap forward. Growth and decay, hand-in-hand, with delicate flowers on the path.”

How do we “do” in-between? In the deepest time of despair in the exodus story, the Midrash tells us that the men lost their desire to procreate. But the women resisted. They would go down to where the men worked. Then they would take out their copper mirrors and look into them with their husbands. She would say, “I am more attractive than you,” and he would say, “No, I am more attractive than you.” In this playful manner, the women would awaken desire in their husbands, and procreation resumed.

Clinical psychologist Leanne Zabow suggests that this idea of looking into mirrors is about re-awakening and re-constellating the idea of potential. Mirrors became a portal to reflect not only on what is, but what could be. The men might have felt undermined, oppressed, and despondent. But the play of reflecting and reflection in these mirrors reminded them of the selves they were and they might become. Perhaps the width of expanse begins not with G-d saving us in an outright gesture of redemption, but with our persistent and audacious hope.

Just before Pesach 1939, on the eve of World War II, the Hassidic Rebbe Kalnymus Kalman Shapira (writer of the Esh Kodesh) wrote a letter to his community. He had exhorted them to leave Poland but as the year rolled on, it became almost impossible for many to leave. In this letter, knowing that the reality ahead for his people was grim and that evil huddled at the door, he instructed his followers to be joyous on Pesach.

He wrote, “Your joy should so exalted that you feel that you can barely hold yourself back from breaking into an ecstatic dance, leaping from the earth to the heavens. When you sit at the seder table, you imagine yourself sitting down to a festive meal in Gan Eden itself, participating in the celebration of the final redemption.”

It’s not my intention to compare the hardships of our pandemic to the monstrous atrocities of the Holocaust. But I’m struck by the rebbe’s radical resistance to despair. He knew what his people faced, yet he invited them to feel joy on Pesach night. It’s deeply moving!

This year, we are still betwixt and between. We aren’t yet freed from our experience of the narrow place. Yet, how we long for it! We can sense its possibility.

We may still have to deal with the ups and downs of this time. But on Pesach night, the Esh Kodesh invites us to become radical imagineers of possibility. We have a responsibility to hold up the copper mirrors of the Israelite, and remind ourselves and each other of the expanse, the possibility of lives fully lived.

For seder night, we enter into joy and sing our redemption song. The time is a coming.

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

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Natalie

    Mar 26, 2021 at 3:35 pm

    A magnificent piece. Thank you Adina

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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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