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The great marathon of destiny

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Religion

One could find fewer more appropriate metaphors for the story of the Jewish people than that of a long and rigorous marathon in which the baton is passed from runner to runner as each generation concludes its distance and a new stretch begins.

The marathon of the Jewish people started 3 533 years ago, and is destined to continue onto the finish line – the coming of Moshiach. Then, great rewards and accolades will be meted out for the incredible feat of seeing through this longest and hardest marathon in all of history, and a new epoch will begin.

Scholars, historians, and philosophers are all at a loss as to how to explain the continuity that is the marathon of the Jewish people. They are baffled at how extraordinary it is that the baton hasn’t been dropped, and how the run through history continues.

Even more remarkable is how at intermittent stages in the race, other runners of supreme physique and athletic prowess joined in the marathon and, bragging of their might and muscle and domination of the track, drummed in the message that they would easily be the victors. Many of these tried forcibly to cut down the Jew and eliminate him from the marathon using all kinds of threat, menace, and brutal and savage attack. But these attempts proved futile. History shows that each of these formidable runners eventually fell out of the marathon while the Jew continued.

There were those runners who entered the race who realised that they couldn’t forcibly eliminate the irrepressible Jew out of the race, and who decided to use guile. Their method was to lure him with promises of bounty and pleasure, with showers of love and adoration, and with offers of prestige and prominence. “Just leave the marathon, drop the baton, you’ll have it so good!” But the Jew waved them off, and said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

And so, the saga continued for millennia, and continues today. The baton hasn’t been dropped. The Jew’s march to the finish line is uninterrupted.

So, what’s the unique formula of the Jew that has enabled this seemingly inexplicable outcome of endurance and continuity?

We will touch on one fundamental component – Pesach. The birth of the Jewish people was unique among nations in history. They came to be a people not of their own gathering and becoming, but were gathered and became, as no other, by the Hand and doing of G-d. Their appointment as a people took place amidst great wonders and miracles. It was done in full view, out in public, open for all to see. It happened in spite of the efforts of the mightiest power of the day’s attempts to prevent it. Pharaoh and Egypt didn’t want to let this slave people go, and tried to defy its happening. But G-d’s people had been chosen, and so Pharaoh and Egypt crumbled, falling like a house of cards.

From being an oppressed, broken, and trapped bunch of slaves, this people was raised up by the Hand of the almighty Himself, taken to Him to be a people, and elevated to the highest heavens to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”.

Once a year, on the very same date that this birth into nationhood took place, the Jew sits down and v’higadta l’vincha – he tells the story to his children of how they became a people. He speaks of the uniqueness of their marathon run, and the imperative that the baton is never dropped. He tells of how they were forged in the miraculous, and of their destiny being intertwined with the very purpose of creation.

The Pesach seder is the annual event that deals with the story of the birth of the Jew in particular detail. The message at the seder comes from a runner in the marathon that received the baton when he/she was young, and is now passing it on through the seder. In doing so, they are strengthened in their continued stretch of the race, re-affirming their commitment to their part in the marathon, as well as preparing the next generation to do their part.

To be clear though, the retelling of this event, which essentially summons the Jew to recognise his mission and destiny, cannot suffice with only annual gathering and telling. We are bidden to “remember the exodus from Egypt all the days of your life”. It’s mentioned in our daily prayers. We also recite it twice a day in the Shema, morning and night.

The conscientious athlete knows that in order to challenge for victory – and especially if it’s the coveted championship race – he needs to be in prime condition and must keep focus and commitment throughout. He cannot afford to drop the baton on his watch. So, too, we cannot rely only on an annual retelling of our peoples’ founding and this incredible start to the cosmic marathon. Rather, we need to “remember the exodus from Egypt all the days of your life”.

So as to the question, what’s the Jew’s unique formula that has enabled this seemingly inexplicable outcome of endurance and continuity? One vital component of it is, indeed, the Pesach seder, but perhaps an even more important component is carrying the seder and the message of this birth of our people into the year ahead so that the stretch of the marathon that’s run each day is done with fresh knowledge, renewed pride, and clear and immediate conviction. Then, we can be sure that the baton will be held firmly and passed on assuredly, reaching all the way to the finish line with the coming of Moshiach.

  • Ilan Herrmann is the rabbi of Soul Workout shul, publisher of ‘Soul Sport’ magazine, and the founder of Soul Workout outreach organisation.

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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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