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The masks we wear

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Parshot/Festivals

As I write this, I’m looking at a row of masks. That might not be surprising given that it’s a week to Purim. The masks, however, aren’t in honour of this favourite of festivals, but because we live in a deadly time and to leave the house without one is dangerous and illegal. How appropriate, then, for Jewish time and COVID-19-time to align so compellingly.

Let’s begin with Purim. The mask is so connected with Purim, we may forget why it got there in the first place. The little Esthers and Mordechais running around the shul playground might not know that the Purim mask has a deep, dark history, and one that has much to teach us in 2021.

The opening chapter of the Megillah describes a huge feast the likes of which no-one can imagine, COVID-19 or no. It’s not set in Israel but in the land of Persia, the city of Shushan to be precise, and for the rest of the chapter, it’s unclear what the story has to do with us at all.

It’s only in chapter two that we meet Mordechai the Jew, and he is introduced not only with the typical lineage, but the fact that his great grandfather was one of the original exiles sent from Israel to Babylon. Mordechai the Jewish exile. And so, we’re told a story that isn’t just Jewish, but reflects a reality familiar to you and me and every Jew who lives in the diaspora today.

At first glance, the Jews of Persia live in a land of plenty. The palace of Shushan is full of bling and excess and, at least until Haman changes the rules, the Jews seem to live peacefully alongside their compatriots. Mordechai has a position of some influence and access to the king. And yet, at the whim of his majesty, all qualifying virgins are trafficked from their homes to the palace to provide fodder for the harem. No consent. No security. But that’s true for all the maidens, not just the Jewish ones (sadly true today too). The first mask is the mask of comfort – financial and physical. The Megillah reminds us that what we see on the surface as “the good life” is fragile and impermanent.

Enter our heroine, and the name of the book. Esther isn’t her Jewish name. The Megillah tells us that her Hebrew name is Hadassah. But Esther is the name she goes by, which hints at the Hebrew nistar, the hidden one. Hadassah hides herself behind the beautiful Persian face of Esther. In spite of the seductively wealthy surroundings, the price Esther and Mordechai pay is to leave some of themselves at home. Every day. Even as she ascends to the highest position a woman in Persia might, at Mordechai’s insistence, Esther hides her true identity.

What did they fear? The text doesn’t say. But we, the reader, have a sense that we know. It may be from our knowledge of our past, remote and recent, when the Hamans and Hitlers of history have turned a seemingly safe haven into a hell of persecution and death. Or it may be more subtle, as every day, we choose carefully, depending on who it is we are with, how much of our Jewish self to reveal. Part of the irony of life in the diaspora is the measure of successful assimilation, the daily dance of acceptance and social climbing while trying to preserve a core of Jewish self.

Outward signs are clothing, “looks”, and having the right stuff. Esther, after all, is chosen for her beauty, the ultimate sign of being “in”. In our society, it’s the right car, the latest look, the nose not too large, the hair like (insert celebrity name). Esther trades on her looks, and Mordechai encourages her. They aren’t bad people, nor are they weak characters. They are just doing what we do every day – living as Jews in a non-Jewish world.

The most striking mask in the book of Esther is the absence of G-d. Not one mention. A notion that’s picked up by the Talmud: “From where does the Torah bring the name Esther? From the verse, ‘But I [G*d] will surely conceal My face [haster astir panai] on that day’.” (Deuteronomy 31:18 in B.Talmud Hullin 139b). The name, Esther, is interpreted as an extension of the phrase for a concealed G-d. Is that not the experience of so many today, who want so desperately to see G-d, hear G-d, speak to G-d, ask G-d, “Why?”

And thus, the mask becomes not just a device worn on Purim to evoke a laugh, but a symbol of our spiritual challenges, the lives we lead, and the identity negotiations they require. And this year, masks are all the more the primary metaphor of the moment.

Purim was the last festival that we celebrated in person. The first COVID-19 case had just surfaced in South Africa (on 4 March 2020) when Purim was celebrated (9 March) and while we watched with interest, the Megillah was read (in person to real people), the drinks circulated, and no-one, no-one said, “You are on mute” once. Zoom shares were still affordable.

A year later, that memory is tainted with every single cancelled sacred occasion since then from Pesach seder to Shavuot cheesecake competition to the unthinkable high holy days online. Worse than this, so many of our community have lost loved ones, friends, and family to the deadly disease. And all the way through, the (non-Purim) mask has been with us.

So, this Purim, as we mask up, may we pray that soon, the time will come that we can all take off the mask. The COVID-19 mask but also the mask that hides our true reality. The masks of hiding who we are. Hiding our yearnings, fears, hopes, sexual orientation, failings, and our gifts.

And the mask of meaning. May we delve deeply into the deepest mystery of all to reveal the Dwelling Presence in and around us. Have yourself a joyful Purim.

  • Rabbi Greg Alexander is part of the rabbinic team at the Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation.

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OP-EDS

In the race against COVID-19, vaccination just the first lap

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About 200 years ago, the Torah giant, the Tiferet Yisrael (Rabbi Israel Lifshitz – 1782 to 1860) exhorted his followers to be vaccinated against smallpox. The sage was meticulous in fulfilling the mitzvah aseh (positive commandment) of the obligation to avoid the much greater threat to life posed by the disease even if the vaccine itself was far from harmless. In those years, smallpox vaccination was a rather hazardous procedure coming with a mortality of close to 1:1000.

It has been ascribed to the Tiferet Yisrael that he drew up a list of non-Jews who ought to be credited with olam habah (a future in the world to come). Top of his list he put the chosid, Yenner, (Edward Jenner) who developed the first human vaccine against smallpox at the close of the 18th century which saved millions of lives down the years. About 200 years later, that virus was eradicated from the planet by global vaccination.

So, where are we now with our present pandemic – the COVID-19 pandemic? What could the future light at the end of the tunnel look like?

Our current travails with the COVID-19 pandemic are due to a new virus, SARS-Cov-2, introduced into the human population just less than a couple of years back. This is a new pandemic, against which new vaccines were developed at an unprecedented breakneck speed to prevent the resulting new disease. It was a triumph of advanced modern science to develop new vaccines within a year of discovering the causative virus in order to address this formidable new pandemic with urgency. Technologies were employed which had never previously been used for human vaccines. To add to this bewildering mix came the internet and pervasive social media – valuable tools for disseminating important public-health messages, but an equally sinister vehicle for spewing misinformation, conspiracies, and mistrust and, in no small measure, contributing to confusion, anxiety, and, unfortunately, vaccine hesitancy.

So, where do we stand on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 5782 (2021) in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic? As of 24 August (by the time you read this these figures will be quite a bit higher) more than eleven million doses of vaccine have been administered in South Africa with more than 21% of the adult population being vaccinated. Even now, the effectiveness of the vaccination programme is starting to be felt with a small, yet significant, reduction in serious COVID-19 disease and hospitalisation in the country.

What is our expectation for controlling the pandemic with vaccination? It’s interesting that when we look back at the earlier days of the pandemic last year, the scientific community thought that the SARS-Cov-2 virus was as menacing as any new pandemic was feared to be, but that it would turn out to be no more complicated than measles or polio to combat and conquer. We hoped, as with measles and polio, that it wouldn’t take long to develop an effective vaccine to conquer this newcomer.

But that was before the virus uncannily demonstrated its ability to mutate and generate new variants which could escape the protection afforded by vaccination. In turn, the Beta variant arrived, which was relatively resistant to vaccines, and after that, the highly contagious Delta variant, which is now also flexing its muscles for vaccine escape.

Common wisdom dictates that infectious diseases can be combatted in four phases. Phase one is the phase of containment. In this phase, the main damage caused by the offending infectious agent is brought under control. In the case of COVID-19, this is the phase reached by Western developed countries. High vaccine coverage has drastically reduced severe disease which, in the pre-vaccination era, resulted in wealthy countries being brought to their knees and unable to cope with the overwhelming number of critically ill patients, and mortuaries unable to keep pace with burying the dead. But, in spite of extensive vaccination campaigns, infection and illness still persist to a worrying degree. Fortunately, in the majority of cases, illness is mild. Where preventive measures are relaxed, as prematurely occurred in many countries such as Israel, the United States, and several European countries, there have been significant flare-ups. Most public-health authorities would accept this to be an interim phase, as restrictive measures still need to be in place to prevent epidemic waves of illness flaring up.

Only in a future phase two, the phase of control, may we contemplate returning to a pre-COVID-19 life. To enter into this phase, a second generation of advanced vaccines would have to be developed. They would need to provide more effective and durable immunity, be able to be effective against any new variants, and also be able to reduce transmission markedly from infected vaccinated persons. For the latter, the new vaccines will need to effect good immunity in the upper respiratory tract – mucosal immunity. There is, indeed, intensive research into developing this next generation of vaccines. In this phase, restrictions may be relaxed to the point of returning to our pre-2020 lifestyle. Infection and illness won’t totally disappear, but it will be at a tolerable level – perhaps much like the common cold or flu we all accept every winter season.

Phase three, the elimination phase, has been reached with a number of vaccine-preventable diseases. In this phase, infection and illness no longer occur in many parts of the world because of successful vaccination campaigns, although it remains present in other regions of the globe. Examples are polio, measles, and a number of other childhood infections. This phase cannot yet be contemplated for COVID-19. Our best expectation would be to enter into phase two, the control phase.

The ultimate phase four, the eradication phase, has been achieved only with one infectious disease – smallpox. About two centuries after the chosid, Jenner, invented the smallpox vaccine, and following unprecedented vaccination campaigns in every corner of the world, the disease and the virus were finally eradicated in 1980, and the virus formally declared to have been purged from the planet.

Meanwhile, let’s try make the present phase, phase one of COVID-19, as successful as possible. Get vaccinated, and continue to maintain all infection-prevention measures religiously so that we can safely look forward to phase two – maybe some time next year?

  • Barry Schoub is the chairperson of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 Vaccines. He is professor emeritus of virology at the University of the Witwatersrand, and was the founding director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. He writes in his personal capacity.

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Parshot/Festivals

This year, be the change your shul needs

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COVID-19 has drastically accelerated change in the way the world works – from a social, work, health, and travel point of view. Politics, economics, and social behaviour has shifted dramatically. And it has had a deep impact on our shuls.

As a community, we are at a watershed moment and have a unique, historic opportunity to rebuild our shuls – creatively and with renewed focus on purpose and meaning.

And we need to do it together.

Many have become comfortable davening at home, and have even begun to question the necessity of returning to shul. I would like to suggest why it’s not just important, but vital.

Praying in isolation can easily become a self-centred experience. Alone with our thoughts, we have only our own hopes and concerns to focus on. But when we pray with a minyan – when we are able to see each other and feel real empathy – we have the opportunity to pray for each other. We see the pain on a person’s face who is struggling financially. Or another person struggling with health complications. Or someone else struggling with a family issue. We are able to truly open our hearts to those around us, and pray for them in their moment of need. The Talmud tells us there is also tremendous personal merit in praying for others’ needs before our own.

And there is the undeniable spiritual power of davening in a minyan. Our sages explain that when we pray together, we come before Hashem not just on our own merit, but with the collective merit of the community – and, in fact, all of klal Yisrael. A minyan represents not just its members but links us spiritually to Jews around the world and across the generations. Our prayers are therefore exponentially more powerful. This is particularly important on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we come before our Creator in judgement, and need every merit we can get.

By praying in a minyan, we become part of something greater than ourselves. When we come to shul, we are contributing to the community. Just by being there, we create a newfound energy and vibrancy.

Particularly now. The pandemic has put great pressure on our shuls, and there is an enormous challenge – but also a great opportunity – to rebuild them to positions of strength, equalling and then exceeding what they were before the pandemic. To build a new, rich sense of community that inspires existing congregants and draws new people in.

And to do that we need to get involved, to be proactive in building the sense of community within our shuls. This means starting or joining shiurim; attending services both on Shabbos and during the week; participating in chesed activities – whether it’s making meals, visiting the sick, or reaching out to fellow congregants with messages of love and support; or contributing to the everyday running of the shul, sponsoring a brocha, or championing a new programme ourselves.

There’s a paradigm shift here. We need to start viewing ourselves not as clients of our shul, but as partners, active participants – not spectators, but players. Our relationship with our shuls shouldn’t be as a consumer weighing whether the product or service is of sufficient benefit to us; the decision to return to shul or daven at home shouldn’t be a cold cost-benefit analysis about what suits us better. We need our shuls. And our shuls need us.

Ultimately, it’s for our own good. Hashem has hardwired us to derive the greatest satisfaction, paradoxically, from moving beyond self-interest. Transcending the self – acting for the sake of the collective, contributing to a greater cause – is deeply fulfilling and deeply pleasurable. Coming back to shul and driving these changes is its own reward.

Among the great challenges society is going through during this pandemic is widespread depression and isolation, each reinforcing the other. And the greatest antidote to these twin challenges is to leave our isolation – to get out there and make a contribution. To get involved in the community. This is absolutely vital for both our own mental health and spiritual vitality, and our communal vibrancy.

Now, as we prepare to welcome in the year 5782, is the time to renew our shuls as active players, not spectators, and partners, not consumers. Ready to make a difference. Together.

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The day of judgement is a day of love

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I recently argued with a good friend. She always tries to be strictly objective in her assessment of her children. I objected. I feel strongly that my job as a mother isn’t to be objective about my children but always to see the good in them, to judge them favourably, and love them unconditionally.

This positivity bias toward my children is obvious and natural, but at the same time, I truly believe that life experience will teach them to be realistic and humble, that I don’t have to. All the encouragement, support, and love I can give them can only build them up and make them great.

This unconditional positive regard and acceptance can swallow up so many of their problems, so much of their self-doubt and negativity. It can charge my children with all the confidence and strength they need to face life’s challenges and make a success of their lives. I believe in them, and they know it. You’re entitled to your own parenting style, but this is mine, and I stand by it.

It occurs to me that this is also a model to understand our relationship with Hashem, who is like a parent to us. Too often, we approach Elul, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur with trepidation and fear. We become discouraged and demoralised, too mindful of our failings, too oblivious to our potential. This approach is valid if we believe that Hashem’s judgement of us is impartial – “objective” and unbiased. We could justifiably be afraid if we imagine that Hashem is coldly examining our thoughts and deeds and dispassionately attributing credit and blame.

But instead, I offer you the idea that the prevailing atmosphere of Elul is love. We are Hashem’s children, and He is not objective about us at all. At this time of year, when we are in Hashem’s presence, we can allow ourselves to feel loved, encouraged, and supported. We can believe that He sees so much more good in us than bad.

This attitude can inspire us to overcome our faults and weaknesses. Knowing that Hashem believes in us and wants us to succeed can enable us to conquer self-doubt and negativity. We’re not in a power struggle with Hashem, we aren’t His adversaries. He’s always helping us and supporting us. And in this light, on Yom HaDin, our day of judgement, we have little to fear.

We can feel safe in the knowledge that we all have the unfair advantage of being judged by our Loving Father in heaven, who believes in us. He regards each of us as a hero. He knows that our strengths can overwhelm our weaknesses. He wants only to reward us and help us succeed. Like the perfect parent, He judges us favourably, waits for us patiently, loves us unconditionally, allows us to grow up slowly, watches our choices, and gets much nachas from our growth!

Shana tovah uMetuka! May we all be written and sealed for goodness!

  • Rebbetzin Gina Goldstein has been speaking, teaching, writing, and volunteering in the South African Jewish community for more than 25 years. Together with her husband Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, she co-founded The Shabbos Project, Sinai Indaba, and Generation Sinai.

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