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The audacity of light

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Parshot/Festivals

Light has always been used as a metaphor for revelation. In Kabbalah, the Jewish mystics referred to the highest expression of divinity as “infinite light”. And, of course, when revelation strikes, we “see the light”.

But what drives people to be so obsessed with light?

Plainly, I am thinking about Chanukah, the Festival of Lights. For generations, Chanukah was observed at home and the menorah (chanukiah) would also be kindled in shuls before the evening service. But, in our times, public menorah lighting ceremonies are so widespread, they have become part of the Jewish landscape.

It all started back in Chanukah 1974, when Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, a leading Chabad shaliach, kindled a menorah outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia near the Liberty Bell. The following year, an old friend of mine, Rabbi Chaim Drizin, erected the first giant menorah in San Francisco.

When they tried to do a public menorah lighting in Burlington, Vermont, it was met by protests. The then mayor came to its defence. His name? Bernie Sanders! The world’s largest menorah was designed by renowned artist Yaacov Agam in 1977, and is located, appropriately, in New York City. It goes up on Fifth Avenue at Central Park, and is certified by the Guinness World Records. It was inspired by a hand drawing by the Rambam (Maimonides) of the original menorah in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem.

For Israel’s chief rabbis to kindle a giant menorah at the Kotel doesn’t raise any eyebrows, but it’s heart-warming to see a huge menorah outside the White House in Washington or at the Eiffel Tower in Paris. And isn’t it awe-inspiring to see that they’ve been lighting up Red Square at the Kremlin in Moscow since 1991, a year before the fall of the Soviet Union, and now also at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, a former symbol of Nazi power and tyranny?

I was privileged to organise the first giant menorah in Johannesburg at the Killarney Mall way back in 1979 when I was the director of Chabad House here. It was such a novelty then that there were, literally, thousands of Jews at the nightly ceremonies.

Which Jew in the world hasn’t seen or experienced these iconic public menorahs? Indeed, they have helped to publicise the miracle of Chanukah, and have encouraged countless Jews to observe it themselves with their families.

But it wasn’t always that simple. In fact, it would take the United States Supreme Court itself to give the legal stamp of approval for the City of Pittsburgh to erect a giant menorah outside City Hall on 3 July 1989. And even after that, a series of court cases up until 2002 were necessary finally to put to bed the arguments of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) that contended it was a violation of the separation of church and state principle enshrined in the American Constitution. (Why the ACLU never argued that against the thousands of festival trees and nativity scenes in public areas is a moot question.)

My question is this: the Lubavitcher Rebbe was famous for always being positive and non-confrontational. Why would he instruct his people to fight the case and indeed to take it to the highest court in the land?

It may be because the Rebbe was infatuated with light. He believed more than anyone in the power of light to stamp out darkness. Others concentrate their efforts on fighting darkness, while the Rebbe taught us to spread light.

Can you imagine a Chabadnik throwing rocks at people driving their cars on Shabbos, as so sadly happens in Jerusalem? Impossible! The Rebbe would have been horrified. We must teach, encourage, invite, share, and inspire, not threaten people here or in the hereafter.

His way was always to spread light. To share the beauty of our faith rather than the consequences of disregarding it. “A little light dispels a lot of darkness” became one of the most quoted lines in the movement, almost a mantra.

But, in fact, it goes all the way back to the Talmud itself, which states that the Chanukah menorah should ideally be kindled “at the outside doorway of one’s home”. If we cannot manage that (can you just imagine us trying that in South Africa today?) then a windowsill which is visible to the outside may be used. The guiding principle here is pirsumei nisa, (to publicise the miracle) of Chanukah as widely as possible. That is also one of the main reasons we light the menorah in shul.

Clearly, the purpose of the Chanukah lights isn’t only to light up our own homes, but to illuminate the night, to remove the darkness from the streets.

Yes, there is something audacious about taking the Chanukah lights out into the streets and into the most public square. But the Rebbe believed in the power of light. He was absolutely determined and focused on changing the world by disseminating light. He was single-minded about sharing and spreading the light of Torah and Judaism in every corner of the world.

Are you embarrassed? Do you question why we should be flaunting our faith in public? Then, I quote my deeply lamented senior colleague, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, obm, who said, “Non-Jews respect Jews who respect Judaism, and they are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed by Judaism.” Be proud of who you are, and others will be proud of you too.

Why the Rebbe’s obsession with light? Perhaps to banish darkness once and for all and usher in a new dawn, a new light, the light of redemption.

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

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OP-EDS

How to create room to breathe while being constricted

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There is no doubt that our community and wider country are starting 2021 in a meitzar, a narrow place, filled with fear and anxiety. Caught in a second wave which we hoped would never come, we are waiting with trepidation for schools to start, for numbers to drop, for vaccines to arrive. Would it help us to reflect that in Parshat Vayeira this week, we find the Israelites caught in their narrow place, the slavery of Egypt, Mitzrayim!

While the parsha this week describes the unfolding of the larger-scale events of the plagues, it opens with insight into the state of mind of “the people”, b’nei Yisrael. Hashem asks Moshe to reassure enslaved people by telling them that He has heard their cries, and is going to save them. The people will be taken out of Mitzrayim, and will be allowed to pursue their destiny. Moshe brings this message of comfort and hope to the people. And we are told, “The people of Israel would not listen to Moses, from shortness of breath and cruel bondage. (Ex, ch. 6, v 9).” Commenting on the words “they would not listen”, Rashi creates an equivalence between “to listen” and “to receive”, saying, lo kiblu tanchumin (the people weren’t able to receive words of comfort). It’s a deep place of despair where a person isn’t able to receive words of soothing and hope.

What stopped people from being able to be comforted? The avodah kashah describes the cruel bondage of slavery in which our people’s individual liberties and freedom were removed. Indeed, it may feel as if there is little agency or room to move when large forces of power are manipulating one’s life, such as in a pandemic.

However, we are also told that the people weren’t able to listen because of kotzer ru’ach (shortness of breath). The Midrash Aggadah plays on the words kotzer ru’ach, and claims that the people were “short on spirit” meaning emunah, and thus became involved in idol worship.

The Sefat Emet makes a startling interpretation of this midrash, suggesting that the Israelites weren’t actually worshipping idols, but rather were so distanced from themselves and filled with the vanities of the world that they had no inner space to receive this message of hope. Rashi observes that both Mitzrayim and kotzer contain the root “tzar”. He links the two, saying anyone who is in constriction (meitzar), will experience shortness (katzar) of breath. We might understand Rashi’s meitzar or constriction as anxiety, a state of constriction that freezes a person, conjuring up Edvard Munch’s terror-laden image of The Scream. When we are put under undue stress and pressure, we lose our capacity to take deep, long breaths. Thus, two factors prevent the people from receiving Moshe’s tanchumim: external factors linked to oppression and enslavement (avodah kashah); and an inner state of mind linked to alienation, distancing from G-d, and distressing anxiety (kotzer ru’ach).

Like b’nei Yisrael, we find ourselves caught in the powerful currents of history, political power-plays, pandemics, and all sorts of circumstances over which we have very little control. This is our avodah kashah, the larger forces which play out across our world. However, according to the parsha, our constriction and redemption depend not only on external factors but also on the way in which we work with our own kotzer ru’ach. As we begin 2021 gripped by second waves of COVID-19 in many parts of the world, we might be inclined to feel hopeless. This can lead to filling our minds and hearts with pessimism, negative projections onto the year, and anticipatory anxieties about what will be. If our mind is filled with kotzer ru’ach, it won’t have the emptiness to be open to receive the whispers and ripples of hope when they come our way.

In the words of the Sefat Emet, “Hearing requires being empty of everything so that we can hear the voice of G-d.” In times like these, if we are sufficiently attuned, we might be able to receive comfort, connect to feelings of hope, or even feel moments of faith and upliftment. These moments may come as calm, as perspective, as wisdom, as kindness, in the form of poetry, Torah learning, or prayer. Perhaps, quite simply, we will feel less constricted by “shortness of breath”, and more open to neshimah, breath, and expansiveness.

This is a hard time in our world, but we have a tradition of people going through very difficult times and being redeemed from them. We learn from b’nei Yisrael that any redemption requires waiting and is subject to forces beyond our control. However, we aren’t mere victims of circumstance. By working to heal our kotzer ru’ach, we create room for agency in our own narrow places. It might even be that our expanded ability to receive can help usher in the larger-scale transformation and redemption for which we hope and pray.

  • Adina Roth is a Jewish educator at B’tocham Education, and a clinical psychologist in private practice in Johannesburg. She is studying online at Yeshivat Maharat in New York.

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Don’t lose your spirit

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Imagine you’ve been working on the job for years and years. It’s hard, manual labour and you’re not simply tired but exhausted, demoralised, drained, and frustrated. And then, one fine day, some new fellow on the floor stands up and promises a whole new world of equality, rewards, and ultimate freedom. Do you believe him, or are you beyond hope? Do you dare hold out for a better tomorrow and risk being disillusioned, devastated, and cast into despair yet again, or do you simply accept your fate and give up dreaming?

So it was with our ancestors in Egypt. They were slaving away all those years, when a new face appeared and began making promises. Moses brought a message from G-d that they were about to be redeemed. There is a Promised Land ahead. All is not lost. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

The Jews’ response? They didn’t listen to Moses as a result of shortness of breath and from hard labour.

One commentary explains that “shortness of breath” shouldn’t be understood only literally. The Hebrew for breath is ruach, which can also mean “spirit”. In other words, they weren’t able to heed Moses’ call not only from physical breathlessness, but because they lacked the spirit. Having suffered in bondage for so long, they no longer had the faith or hope to believe that freedom was still in the realm of the possible. It was simply beyond them. They had lost their spirit.

In the history of Egypt, no slave ever escaped. How could an entire nation ever walk free? Moses is a dreamer, they must have thought. It’s just not realistic to hold out such high hopes only to have them dashed yet again. And so, the people were utterly despondent and spiritless and therefore, they couldn’t hear – absorb – Moses’ message.

It happens all too often. People become so set in their mediocrity that they give up hope of ever achieving breakthrough. Marriages get stuck in the rut of routine, and the tedious treadmill keeps rolling along until we lose even the desire to dream. It takes an extraordinary degree of faith and courage not to.

I have often quoted a wise proverb in the name of legendary Chasid Reb Mendel Futerfas. “If you lose your money, you’ve lost nothing. Money comes and money goes. If you lose your health, you’ve lost half. You are not the person you were before. But if you lose your resolve, you’ve lost it all.”

Moses brought new hope to a depressed, dreamless nation. He gave it back the spirit it had lost, and eventually, through the miracles of G-d, the promise was fulfilled, and the dream became destiny.

To be out of breath is normal. To be out of spirit is something the Jewish people can never afford. May we never lose our spirit.

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From small flicker to giant flash of illumination

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One of the most memorable Chanukah holidays of my life was spent in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Walking through the narrow lanes and alleyways of the Jewish Quarter, just after dark, I was deeply moved by the sight of the little candles shining in the doorways. Special recesses had been carved in the Jerusalem stone of the doorposts, where the chanukiah was placed, protected from the winter winds and rains by a glass covering. This enabled the literal fulfilment of the Talmudic instruction: “Chanukah candles must be placed on the outside of the doors of our home.”

There was an interesting architectural anomaly in King Solomon’s Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Windows are usually built to maximise the penetration of light into a building. As described in the Book of Kings, the windows of the sanctuary were shaped by design so that light would shine out, rather than in. According to Talmud Menachot, this was meant to convey the message that G-d doesn’t need outside illumination. On the contrary, the spiritual light of the Menorah, with everything it symbolises, must spill out and brighten the world.

Since March, we have each been transforming our homes into sanctuaries. Our personal dwellings have always been hallowed: places of sanctity and purity which serve as mini-homes for G-d. Confined as we have been for the past eight months, this exercise has intensified.

For months, synagogues were closed for worship and prayer relocated to our flats and houses. Our rabbis, previously preaching from towering pulpits, arrived right into our living rooms on the screens of iPhones, iPads, and iMacs.

Our homes also became beacons of kindness, caring, and giving. Physical hospitality was of course severely curtailed by lockdown limitations. But chesed doesn’t only happen in the home, it also emanates from the home. In counterpoint to the numerous stories of corruption, graft, and theft that dominated our headlines were thousands of acts of selfless attention to the lonely, the elderly, and others needing assistance.

Fortunately, this pandemic is playing out in an age when communication technology is extremely advanced. This made it so much easier to be connected with the rest of world even without stepping out. Today, we can reach out to show care via a telephone call or a WhatsApp message. We can wish each other a good Shabbos through cute little graphics sent out to broadcasts lists. We can help friends shop online even if they aren’t technologically adept. All of these advances became tools for kindness and chesed.

I have seen the inside of many more of my congregants’ homes in the course of 2020 than in any single calendar year in more than three decades as a pulpit rabbi. Zoom Torah classes and virtual services propelled me right into studies, dining rooms, kitchens, and family rooms of hundreds of residences. In spite of the physical distance there was a sense of presence and home-to-home connection that cannot be achieved by gathering in a lecture room at shul or in the rabbi’s house.

Our sages tell us that the world stands on three pillars: Torah, avodah (prayer), and gemilut chassadim (acts of kindness). While we worked, played, prayed, and studied in our homes, we were busy consolidating the spiritual pillars that are the real foundations holding up a Jewish home.

Here’s the powerful message of Chanukah 2020: we have had eight months to strengthen the structure of our personal home sanctuary. To renovate it, redecorate it, and spruce it up. If it’s to be G-d’s Temple in a true sense, then its glow must shine out into the outside world, a lighthouse radiating sanctity, serenity, and shalom.

The darkness out there may be thick and appear impenetrable. The miracle of Chanukah was the victory of the few over the many. A small light can dispel a lot of obscurity.

We will start with one little candle, in our doorframe or window, solitary but valiantly radiating the warmth and purity from our home to the world out there. That light will increase, night after night, and combine with literally millions of other little Chanukah flames from Jewish homes around the world, to illuminate the entire planet with a giant flash of goodness and purity.

  • Rabbi Yossi Chaikin is the rabbi at Oxford Shul and the chairman of the SA Rabbinical Association.

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