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The day of remembrance

Rosh Hashanah is almost upon us, we can just about taste the sweetness of the honey-drenched apple slices and the sound of the shofar lingers evocatively in our ears a little longer each day.

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Religion

RABBI SAM THURGOOD

But, Rosh Hashanah is an enigmatic festival in many ways. The Torah says almost nothing about it, not telling us (explicitly) that it is the head of the year or the day of judgement; not telling us to make round challah or say tashlich (cast away our sins) in the presence of water, but telling us only two things, that it is a day of the shofar (t’rua), and that it is a day of remembrance (zikaron).

On that second point, our kiddush for Rosh Hashanah actually names the day as Yom HaZikaron, which may sound a little jarring to us, accustomed as we are to this name being associated with Israeli Remembrance Day, the day on which we remember and mourn all the soldiers and victims of terror who have died in establishing, defending, and simply living in our beloved state of Israel.

But there is a great difference between the two remembrance days, and exploring this difference will help us to understand the nature of Rosh Hashanah more deeply. On Israel’s Yom HaZikaron, we are the ones who remember, but on the Yom HaZikaron of Rosh Hashanah, it is we who are remembered. On Israel’s Yom HaZikaron, we take time to think of those who may not be remembered otherwise, many of them young men and women who lost their chance for a future, and descendants of their own, but on Rosh Hashanah, Hashem Himself remembers us – all of us together, the living and the deceased.

But since Hashem doesn’t forget, what does it mean that He remembers? I found my answer to this question while holding one of my small children. Hashem blessed my wife Aviva and I with a daughter (now seven years old) and then, after five years of difficulty and heartbreak, with a twin boy and girl. My children are never far from my thoughts, but as I was holding and laughing with my two-year-old daughter Tzuriya, I could feel the way in which she filled my thoughts and my heart. I didn’t forget my other two children for a moment, but I “remembered” little Tzuriya in an entirely more present and intimate way.

Rosh Hashanah is, at its core, about having that moment with Hashem. About the rest of the world going silent, everything else ceasing to matter for an instant as that relationship between you and Hashem is all there is.

What is that moment? When it is that “our remembrance ascends before the almighty”? When the shofar is sounded. The shofar, which represents both Hashem’s call to us and our call to Him, is a sound that pierces the heavens and the human heart. It’s no wonder that it’s perhaps the most dramatic moment in the entire Jewish year, and that although we have many mitzvot, we don’t treat the shofar as “simply” another mitzvah, but as something special.

In a world of almost eight billion people, it’s easy to feel insignificant. Our country, South Africa, alone has close to the population of the Roman Empire at its height, and there are trends and forces at play that feel so much bigger than we do. Ironically, the information revolution that has turned the world into a global village has exacerbated this phenomenon, as now we’re so much more aware of all that’s happening around the world, from protests in Hong Kong to Brexit (or the lack thereof) in the United Kingdom, to the endless partisan politics of America. And, what can little old me do? Do I matter?

In a difficult year in which I lost my shul to a fire, and saw my Sifrei Torah and so much that I had worked for go up in flames, do I really have the ability to make a meaningful difference?

My daughter, Tzuriya, in the moment in which I was holding her and “remembering” her with all my heart, was in no doubt as to whether she mattered. She knew that she was the centre of my world. The message of Rosh Hashanah as we hear the shofar is that we, too, are the centre of Hashem’s world. The apple of His eye. His honey. One of my favourite verses of the entire liturgy, during the Mussaf Amida is a quote from the book of Jeremiah 31:20:

“Truly, Ephraim [here a stand-in for the Jewish people as a whole] is a dear son to Me, a darling child. For whenever I speak of him, I remember him more and more. That is why My heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him,” says Hashem.

Yes, Rosh Hashanah is a time for judgement, soul searching, and commitment. Imagine a reunion between parent and child after many years. For the first few moments, they are taking one another in, evaluating who and where they are, how they have changed, but the reunion isn’t about judgement, it’s about being together and being loved, being “remembered”.

As Rabbi David Aaron once asked, “How is it that even if everything outside of me tells me that I’m nothing, something within me knows that I’m something?” That something within us is the voice of Hashem, the remembrance that takes places every Rosh Hashanah.

My prayer for us all is that the reunion of Rosh Hashanah is one of love, peace, meaning, and inspiration. One in which we return to ourselves and return to Hashem, and emerge with a renewed sense of significance, confidence, purpose, and holiness.

Shanah Tovah!

  • Rabbi Sam Thurgood is the rabbi of Beit Midrash Morasha in Sea Point, Cape Town.

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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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