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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

Finding faith in the hippo

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This week’s parsha details the laws of kashrus. The Torah makes a brave statement by enumerating the one and only animal that has split hooves but doesn’t chew the cud. It’s a “brave” statement, because if a human being wrote the Torah, how would they know that the pig is the only one on the “face of the planet” with this characteristic?

Moses was born in Egypt, spent some time as a fugitive in Ethiopia, and died somewhere near modern-day Jordan. If we presume that he was the author of the Five Books without any divine inspiration, and he sucked the whole thing out of his left thumb, then how could he be so confident that there wasn’t a marsupial or wallaby in the furthermost corners of the planet that didn’t have at least one of these characteristics? This was almost 3 000 years before anyone even knew there was an Australia. If he was inventing the whole religion, he would have taken the more prudent course of being rather vague. He wouldn’t have blatantly listed the only four exceptions “from all the animals on the earth”.

With this great piece of Torah veracity in my mind, my faith was shaken when, on a trip to London’s Natural History Museum, (I know, it’s a pretty nerdy thing to do), I discovered that there was a hoofed animal, classified by zoology, that seemed to be an exception “overlooked” by the Torah – the hippo. It’s classified as an “ungulate”, a split-hoofed animal without a ruminant stomach that isn’t listed in the Torah as another exception!

I thought about this problem for a while, and then the solution came to me. Why should we allow zoology to dictate the classification of animals? The more I thought about it, the more I realised that hippos don’t have hooves like a pig or cow, they have toes (like camels). I know it’s more fancy to talk about ungulates, phylum, and genus. It even makes us look clever, but if we are really honest with ourselves, we won’t let zoological classifications stand in the way of our emunah in Hashem and His Torah.

Shabbat shalom

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Religion

Let’s start talking about Pesach

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For the past few weeks, my family and I have been doing something really special. We’ve been getting together every Sunday night, sitting around the table, and going through the Pesach Haggadah.

It’s just me, Gina, and our children – our eldest, Mordi, his wife Avigayil, and Levi, Shayna, and youngest Azi. We have supper together, and then we get stuck into the Haggadah, discussing, debating, sharing as a family, covering everything from the four sons, the four questions and the ten plagues, to matzah, maror, and the four cups of wine.

It has been a truly memorable experience. We started this family tradition a few months ago, setting aside the Sunday night slot to connect as a family and share Torah ideas. It’s an open forum, a space for every member of the family to express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions. We’ve covered the Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith and the weekly parsha, and now, most recently, the Haggadah.

Going through the Haggadah, which tells the story of the Jewish people and goes to the very heart of who we are as Jews, has been particularly special. We’ve fine-tuned our understanding of the story, and gained so many new insights and ideas. Just as importantly, we’ve grown closer as a family, and feel more connected to each other and Hashem. Now, as we head towards Pesach, we all feel that this is going to be a dramatically different seder experience. Our mindset is different.

The Pesach seder is perhaps the formative Jewish experience. The seders we had as kids seem to stay with us. Even as we grow older, we recollect them fondly and vividly. It’s so much more than a ceremony, a procession of rituals, it’s the rich soil in which our families and our very Jewish identity are formed.

Of course, as we grow older, there’s the temptation, given how familiar the story is, to slip into autopilot on seder night. But if we prepare, we can avoid this and enter the seder charged with inspiration and filled with rich new perspectives. In doing so, we can transform it into an incredibly powerful spiritual and emotional experience that changes us, that truly frees us from our tired routines and habits and brings us closer to one another, to G-d, and to our true selves. A rebirth in the deepest sense.

That’s why I would like to call on all of us to start these meaningful family conversations in preparation for Pesach, to discuss the ideas and themes and get a deeper understanding of the seder itself. Of course, we need to prepare our homes – cleaning and cooking are incredibly important because they help us to fulfil all the mitzvot of this special chag and ensure we have a proper, kosher Pesach. But the seder, too, needs preparation, and the more we prepare for it, the greater the experience is going to be.

There’s something that can help you get the process started. My family and I were so excited and inspired by our Sunday night learning sessions, we decided to record our Haggadah discussions. We’ve turned these recordings into a special Pesach series, called The Goldstein Family Podcast, which you can access via my website or wherever you get your podcasts. The sessions have been cut and edited into eight episodes ranging from 10 to 30 minutes each to make them as accessible as possible.

There’s not much time left before Pesach, but I would like to encourage you to devote some time to preparing for the seder, and our podcast can be a good place to start. Even just a couple of hours can make all the difference to your seder.

Especially at this time, after a year of being battered by a pandemic, we need the healing, the meaning, and the deep inspiration of the seder more than ever – the message of faith in Hashem, connection to generations past, the sense of rootedness it gives us in an uncertain world.

Let’s take this opportunity to prepare so that we can connect with the ancient words of the Haggadah – with the great origin story of our people – in ways we’ve never done before.

Gina and I wish you all a chag kasher v’same’ach – a beautiful Pesach – and deeply meaningful, enriching seders.

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Religion

Is antisemitism good for the Jews?

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One of the traditional songs from the Pesach Haggadah which has become hugely popular in recent years is Vehi Sheamdah. An original version composed by Yonatan Razel was turned into a mega hit by Yaakov Shwekey, and was named Song of the Decade in Israel.

The passage in English reads, “And it is this that has stood by our fathers and us. For not just one alone [Pharaoh] has risen against us to destroy us, but in each and every generation they rise against us to destroy us and the holy one, blessed be He, saves us from their hand!”

What is meant by the opening words, “vehi” as in “it is this that has stood by us”? What does “this” refer to? The simple meaning seems to be that it follows on the previous paragraph in the Haggadah where we read, “Blessed is He who keeps His promise to Israel.”

It refers to G-d’s promise to redeem the Children of Israel from Egyptian exile. According to commentary, it also refers to G-d’s ongoing promise to redeem us from all our exile and persecution, including the final redemption at the end of days.

This promise has sustained the Jewish people throughout all the dark and difficult days of our long and tortuous history. We have always believed and trusted in G-d’s promise that, in the end, it would all come right.

That’s the simple meaning. But a few years ago, I had a brain wave of a rather alternative interpretation. Later, I was gratified to see the same idea in the writings of earlier rabbis much more learned than I.

What occurred to me was that the Haggadah may have been giving us another message as well. The very fact that “in every generation they rise against us to destroy us” is itself what has stood by us and given us the strength to persevere. Antisemitism, and the fact that in spite of all the existential threats we as a people have suffered, we have survived, all bearing testimony to the Almighty’s watchful eye which continues to guide us through our special providential mission on earth.

Jews and non-Jews alike have marvelled at our miraculous survival. Over 300 years ago, King Louis XIV of France asked the philosopher, Pascal, to give him proof of the existence of G-d. Pascal famously replied, “Why the Jews, your majesty, the Jews!”

Our tiny nation’s survival while all the greatest empires of the world have come and gone remains powerful confirmation that there is a higher power ensuring our continuity and destiny.

Indeed, there is a strong argument to suggest that antisemitism has been good for the Jews. The French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, made that point in his book Anti-Semite & Jew. History records that under regimes that persecuted us, we remained steadfastly Jewish, whereas under more enlightened, liberal forms of government, we became comfortable in our newfound freedom, gradually embracing a welcoming but dominant culture and forfeiting much of our own.

Back in the early 19th century, Napoleon was conquering Europe and promising liberty and equality for all. When he squared up against Russia, many Jewish leaders sided with him, hoping he would finally bring an end to Czarist persecution and extend to Russian Jewry full civil rights. However, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad, thought differently. He actively opposed Napoleon, and even had his Chassidim assist in intelligence gathering for the Russian army.

When his colleagues challenged him and questioned his apparent lack of concern for the well-being of his own people, he argued that while Napoleon might be good for the Jews materially, his victory would result in spiritual disaster. Tragically, the record proves him correct. Minus the Little Emperor, Russian Jews remained staunchly Jewish, while French Jewry virtually vanished.

How many Jewish Rothschilds are left in the world? G-d knows we could have used them. Most of French Jewry today hails from North Africa. The originals are few and far between.

And the American experience confirms beyond a shadow of a doubt that freedom, democracy, and equal rights, while wonderful blessings for Jews for which we should be eternally grateful, also present a profound challenge to our Jewish identity and way of life. In the melting pot of the United States, Jews have integrated so successfully, they are virtually disappearing!

Back in the 1970s, when I was working with Jewish university students, we were struggling to break through a wall of icy indifference towards Judaism. It was so frustrating, that my colleagues and I even considered going onto campus in the dead of night to paint a few swastikas on the student union building!

Maybe that would jolt them out of their apathy. Of course, we never actually did it, but the fact that the thought crossed our minds demonstrates how external threats have a way of making Jews bristle with pride and righteous indignation.

We see it today as well. Outside many shuls around the world, you will find young men and women who volunteer to do security duty. Many of them are never seen inside the shuls they protect. Going to shul and praying isn’t their thing. But when enemies of Israel threaten Jews, these brave young people respond as loyal, committed Jews.

It appears that as repugnant as antisemitism may be, in a strange, perverse sort of way it may have contributed to the stubborn determination of Jews over many generations to stand up for their convictions and live by the principles of our faith no matter what.

So, when you sing Vehi Sheamdah at your Pesach Seder this year, instead of bemoaning our enemies’ hatred for us, find the positive side. Vehi – this very hostility and the never-ending attempt at our annihilation – has only served to strengthen our resolve to remain steadfastly Jewish. Indeed, it has stood us well!

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

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