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The power of words, a true story

In his regular Delving Deeper column, Rabbi Shmuel Bloch, pictured, gives his take on the weekly Parshas: Tazria-Metzorah, starting off by recounting an amazing story

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RABBI SHMUEL BLOCH

Delving Deeper

 

The power of words

A true story.

Two girls got on a bus and they started talking to each other.

“Did you hear that Sarah got engaged yesterday?” 

“No, I never knew that!”

“That’s amazing that Sarah got engaged!!”

“But she is so sloppy and unorganized! How is she going to run a household?”

“She is never on time. Also, she cooked for us once and her food was terrible! Her new husband is going to starve!!”

“She spends money faster than she receives it. How will she get through the month?”

So it went, on and on and on. Behind the two girls was another lady who suddenly spoke up.

“I am sorry to interrupt you girls but I wanted to introduce myself. My son just got engaged to Sarah. Now that I know this information, I will tell my son everything that you said about Sarah and he must break off the engagement immediately. I will also tell all my friends how grateful I am to you girls for letting me know what Sarah is really like”.

The girls were shocked. They started to stutter and struggled to find the right words.

 “No, No” they said with trepidation. Please do not let your son break the engagement.”

 “Sarah is wonderful! She will make a great mother! She really will!”

“She is so warm, friendly and caring”.

“We were just talking. We never meant her any harm”. “Please don’t break the engagement” they pleaded.

 However, the woman was adamant.

“Thank you, but based on what you said, I will make every effort to break it up as soon as possible. The girl you described sounds like a terrible person. I will inform my son immediately.”

The girls were horrified and crushed. After a short silence, the lady turned around to the girls and said “I am not the boy’s mother, but imagine if I was?”

“Do you know the damage you could have caused to this couple? You almost destroyed a potential family just because you had nothing else to talk about?”

“Words either build or destroy, use them wisely” the woman said sternly and with that she got off the bus.

This story should terrify us all.

The reason for this is because it is so easy to talk all the time without any concern for the consequences. However, unknowingly and unwittingly, we  could say things that have a far reaching impact and will tangibly cause distress and pain to others.

Part of our problem is that the following aphorism is embedded in our psyche from an early age and it still affects us years later.

“Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me”

The tragedy of such a situation is that we have grown up believing such a statement is true. However, such a phrase is patently false and poisons our personality because despite the above stated assertion, words are powerful.

Communicating in a harsh and acidic way can destroy and debilitate a person for life.

“But it is only words” people say.

Scars from sticks and stones eventually heal. Scars from vitriolic and harmful words can take an entire lifetime to overcome and in some cases, will plague a person forever.

Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, one of the great Rabbi’s of the previous generation, said there are two ways to be better than the next person. One way is to grow, to toil and labour to bring out your own potential. If the other person does not follow a similar course of action, then you will surge ahead in comparison to someone else. The other way is to dig a hole and push the other person down. Automatically, you feel better and taller. Obviosly we should follow the first way.

In today’s society, using words to put a person down and hurt them has been elevated to an art form and is considered art in and of itself.

“Celebrity Roasts” are watched by millions of people, where the person with the sharpest insult is treated like a hero. Sarcasm and jokes that embarrass others are the bread and butter of comedians these days. Real comedy that does not wound or damage another person’s reputation is rare to find.

Gossip magazines live up to their name: They are full of gossip based on rumours and hearsay. Magazines such as these sell millions of copies. The amount of negativity that they generate is beyond our comprehension.

There is no limit to what the “Paparazzi” will do for a juicy story. Newspapers will carry huge headlines without any verification of the facts. When exposed for communicating falsehood, an apology is seldom forthcoming.

Nevertheless, we need to know and understand this is not the Jewish way.

This week’s Parsha discusses the concept of “Lashon Harah”. Lashon Harah is defined as information which is either derogatory or potentially harmful to another person. If a person spoke Lashon Harah, he would be struck with a sickness called “Tzaraas”.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary on this Parsha dispels an age old myth by proving conclusively that Tzaraas is incorrectly translated as leprosy. Tzaraas is a physical manifestation of a spiritual disease. A person who had Tzaraas had to undergo an intense and lengthy purification process that would restore him back to good health, both spiritually and physically.

A person who was afflicted with Tzaraas is called a Metzorah, and was separated from the community and had to dwell alone.

“All the days that the affliction is upon him, he shall remain contaminated; he is contaminated. He shall dwell in isolation; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Vayikrah Chapter 13 verse 46).

Rashi, the foremost Torah commentator asks why a Metzorah specifically had to be quarantined and live by himself.

He answers by quoting the Talmud (Archin 16B) which states that this person, by speaking Lashon harah, caused husbands to be separated from their wives and friends from one other. He generated discord, conflict and friction with his hurtful words. Thus the Metzorah who caused so much isolation and segregation is removed and cut off from the community. This is done in the hope that he will contemplate and understand the terrible consequences that his words caused and will take positive action to change how he speaks in the future. 

The pen is truly is mightier than the sword. Negative speech which takes a few seconds to speak cannot be mended so easily.

Witnessing a new Shul being built, I noticed that it took only one week to level four houses by a bulldozer and clear away the rubble. Destruction is a swift and rapid process. However, it took over a year and a half of intensive construction to complete the building. Relationships that have take decades to be formed can be dissolved and obliterated forever by a few choice sentences and phrases.

That is how easy it is.

Does that mean according to all of this, we should just never talk and never exercise our gift of speech?

Not at all.

A knife can do wonderful things. It can prepare your food. It can cut your food into smaller pieces making it easier to eat. It can cut open a knot. It can help you cut wood to make a fire if you are camping. Alternatively, a knife can maim, harm and even kill a person. A knife is not intrinsically good or bad. It just depends on how you use it.

Speech is no different. Speech is not intrinsically good or bad. It all depends on how you use your words. A sarcastic comment can cripple a person emotionally for years. A single compliment can launch a person’s career and make them successful for life.

As in all areas of life, if person wants to succeed, you need a coach with extensive knowledge who will help you reach your desired goal. It is well known that athletes seek advice from professionals who are experts in their field. Following their advice causes the athlete to achieve peak performance.

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan was one of the greatest Rabbis of the 20th century who died in 1933. He wrote a book called “Chofetz Chaim”. This book (which is now translated into easy English) is a guide that delineates the laws of Lashon harah and educates what can be said and what should not be said by people when speaking to one another. Remarkably, it further discusses situations when Lashon Harah must be spoken in order to avert being involved in a problematic relationship. The “Chofetz Chaim” has achieved world renown. This book is our “coach” as it were when it comes to having clarity as to what to say and how to say it. It is vital for every person to read and implement its timeless wisdom since there are so many questionable situations that requires guidance and understanding in order to be able to say the right thing.

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan who wrote the book was an active and sought after speaker in his generation. He knew the power of words and how beneficial the right words can be. It is imperative that we follow his example and use our speech to praise, to compliment and to help others.

When we act in such a way, we can be sure that we will infuse goodness and positivity into ourselves, our families and our community like never before.

Try thinking before you speak for a week. It will be one of the best investments that you will ever make. Guaranteed.

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‘Wake up!’ say doctors, as third wave ramps up

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Communal experts this week issued a stern warning to “catch a wake up” as the community has been hard hit by death, severe illness, and an unprecedented number of infections which continue to rise daily during the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is extremely severe,” warned Dr Richard Friedland, the chief executive of Netcare Group. “In Gauteng, we are in the eye of the storm, with things set to get a lot worse than they are.

“We should all be doing what we can to prevent a single death, to prevent people from having to be admitted to hospital,” he said.

The death rate has risen at hospitals, and hospital stays are about 20% longer, exacerbating the shortage of beds, especially in Gauteng, which is leading the uptick in infections.

“As I walk through our COVID-19 units, I see people struggling to breathe, fighting to survive this shocking pandemic. Every day, we are reminded of the pain, the suffering, and the enormous loss that it brings,” Friedland said.

Issuing a plea to the community to be hyper vigilant, he said, “I want to be abundantly clear that there can be no place for a lackadaisical approach.”

Several doctors this week told the SA Jewish Report that the situation was dire, with one doctor describing it as a “battlefield”.

“Patients, some quite young with no comorbidities, are really sick, with the vast majority on one form of ventilation or another,” said Dr Carron Zinman of Netcare Linksfield Hospital.

“Some severely ill patients are being temporarily managed in casualty because there are simply no intensive-care beds available at other hospitals,” she said.

“We are seeing a fairly young cohort, some with no underlying conditions, who are becoming seriously ill. The variants are more virulent and transmissible. We have had quite a lot of patients who have had COVID-19 before or who have received the vaccine, and got it.”

“We treat more aggressively, but there’s still no magic drug. We’re doing everything we can to turn the inflammatory response around. It takes some longer than others,” she said.

“Sadly, some people over 60 believe that once they have had the virus or the vaccine, they are safe. They aren’t. A lot of families including couples and their children are being infected,” she said.

At the time of going to print, Hatzolah had 501 active patients with 64 patients requiring oxygen at home. At least 11.7% of the active cases include children and young adults under the age of 20.

“There are a higher number of younger people including children than in the previous waves,” said Dr Anton Meyberg of Netcare Linksfield Hospital.

Sadly, the majority of patients are still the elderly over 60, but doctors have noticed a rise in the number of patients between the ages of 40 to 60, many requiring hospital admission.

There appears to be a disproportionately higher number of cases within the community, with doctors putting this down to complacency and carelessness about observing protocols.

“There is more testing, but people aren’t following the rules,” said Meyberg, “People who have been vaccinated are becoming lax, and there is a large asymptomatic spread of the virus.”

The country technically entered its third wave on Thursday, 10 June. According to the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19, a new wave starts when the seven-day moving average of new infections surpasses 30% of the previous wave.

More than 70% of the new cases are now in Gauteng and the Western Cape, where there is evidence of a resurgence after a period of recovery, and there are daily increases in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

According to experts, the next two weeks will be particularly severe in Gauteng as the numbers steadily increase. Cape Town is a few weeks behind, they say.

Private-sector hospital admissions have increased four-fold since April. More than 500 patients are being admitted a day in the private sector in Gauteng, which is putting enormous strain on emergency departments fighting to open as many beds as possible to make space.

According to Hatzolah Chairperson Lance Abramson, there were 263 active cases at the peak of the first wave, 333 cases at the peak of the second wave, and now there are more than 500 active cases “with no peak in sight yet”.

“There are a staggering number of active cases in the Johannesburg Jewish community,” he said.

“Ambulances are transporting multiple COVID-19-positive patients to hospitals daily, where it is sometimes difficult to find a hospital bed. Patients are sometimes having to wait in ambulances in the parking lots of hospitals. This is very challenging for teams on the ground,” he said.

The organisation is also looking after 64 patients on home oxygen where they are closely monitored, Abramson said.

The organisation’s nurses are seeing between 80 to 100 patients a day.

Interestingly, Hatzolah has had 238 patients on the programme who have had a vaccine. Of those, 171 had received the first Pfizer vaccine, and 83 had received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, two the AstraZeneca, and one Moderna. Thirty eight patients have been fully vaccinated and of those, only one required hospitalisation and has since recovered, he said.

According to Dr Ryan Noach, the chief executive of Discovery Health, globally, vaccinations have materially slowed the progression of new cases and deaths. There are early signs of reduced COVID-19 infection rates among the vaccinated pollution in South Africa post 15 days after vaccination.

“There are signs that the first dose is working, with early data showing that there are less admissions post vaccination and fewer deaths,” he said.

Worryingly, he said, “The data points to the potential for a very severe third wave, and we’re seeing the beginning of it only now.”

He said more than 50% of adults 70 years and older require admission to hospital.

“Hospital admissions in wave three have reached the level of admissions at the peak in wave one. There are currently 2 012 Discovery members admitted to hospital, of which 526 are in intensive-care, and 275 require ventilation.

“A large number of people are showing evidence of reinfections. Discovery members who contracted COVID-19 in the first wave have again contracted COVID-19 in the second wave. Three members have now tested positive three times,” Noach said.

On 13 June, President Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed that two million Johnson & Johnson (J&J) doses would have to be destroyed because the United States regulator, the Food and Drug Administration, found that the main ingredient with which they were made wasn’t safe for consumption.

As a result, South Africa has no J&J doses to administer at present, setting the country back in its vaccine roll-out in the midst of a third wave. The good news is that, according to the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism, J&J will replace all the doses within the next two weeks, with 300 000 due to land within a few days and another million to be released by Aspen’s Eastern Cape plant next week.

In the meantime, doctors have appealed to people to be hyper vigilant and maintain all non-pharmaceutical measures.

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BDS boycott ‘creating divisions among ordinary South Africans’

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“I felt targeted because I’m Jewish. It’s antisemitic,” said a businessman affected by an alleged boycott of companies purported to support Israel.

A group of 300 South African hardware stores supposedly cancelled contracts with “SA-based suppliers and companies that have relations with or who have shown support for Israel”. The executive director of Africa4Palestine (formerly Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) South Africa), Muhammed Desai, last week described the boycott as “heartwarming”.

“Many people have been pressured by their community to be part of a boycott and cause harm,” said this businessman, speaking on condition of anonymity. “This affects ordinary South Africans because it destroys long-term business relationships.”

Although there has been an impact on his company, it seems not many businesses have felt the impact of the boycott. Other suppliers listed by Desai told the SA Jewish Report that no contracts had been cancelled. “None of our relationships or sales into any of the hardware stores in South Africa have been compromised,” said one supplier, who asked not to be named.

“I can state categorically that this has had no impact on our business,” said another supplier who wanted to remain anonymous. “Our order book is full.”

“As the ‘rainbow nation’, this is just aggressively encouraging divisions that were never there before,” said the first businessman. “People are making business decisions based on religion rather than good business principles. These enforced divisions are what worry me more than anything. What happened to the South Africa that we know? This radical stance is completely nonsensical,” he said.

Desai went on to declare, “Today, standing with Israel, having ties with Israel, or serving in the Israeli military have all, correctly, become similar to, in the past, having stood with apartheid South Africa or with Nazi Germany. To stand with Israel today is now synonymous with saying, ‘I stand with Germany’ during the Holocaust or declaring, ‘I stand with South Africa’ during apartheid.”

He said Africa4Palestine welcomed “this ethical position as a morally sound example to other stores in South Africa and the African continent to emulate so that we can truly create apartheid-Israeli-free zones. Your efforts have served as another great blow to those who believe they can support the Israeli regime on the one hand, and take money and profits from principled and moral South African people.”

If the language of boycotting Jewish businesses and creating “Israeli-free zones” sounds familiar, that’s because it is. South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) National Director Wendy Kahn said, “In his congratulatory letter to the boycotters, Desai compares Israel to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. The irony of his use of Holocaust terminology is also not lost on us Jews. Nazi Germany also came to our minds when we read this letter. We remember that the Holocaust began with the boycotting of Jewish businesses.

“We aren’t fooled by his couching of words or references to those who ‘have relations with or who have shown support for Israel’ and those ‘standing with Israel, having ties with Israel’. What he actually means is Jews. According to the University of Cape Town’s Kaplan Centre study in 2019, 90% of South African Jews support Israel, so invariably, what Desai is calling for is the boycott of Jewish businesses.

“The delight that he takes in potentially destroying these Jewish businesses is gut-wrenching, not least because of the fragile and precarious economic climate in South Africa. Will Desai and the BDS organisations rejoice in the jobs lost by these businesses?

“His so-called victory of boycotts of Jewish business won’t have an impact on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. All these threats achieve is attempted intimidation of local South African Jews who hold an opinion different to BDS. The South African Jewish community won’t be intimidated. It’s effect will be only to harm South African businesses trying desperately to survive and retain jobs,” Kahn said.

“Our Constitution states that everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, and opinion. There’s no rider that excludes Jews and people who have a connection to Israel. Nor does it call for the destruction of livelihoods of people for daring to believe differently.”

Desai issued a statement saying that the accusation of antisemitism was “a deliberate misrepresentation”, but then reiterated that “we welcome South Africans shunning, boycotting, and ending relations with suppliers and companies that are trading with, have links to, or are supportive of Israel”.

In response to the SAJBD’s statement on the matter, published on Facebook, Africa4Palestine’s Bram Hanekom wrote, “The 300 hardware stores can buy the things they need from other South African owned and ethical businesses.”

Benji Shulman, the director of public diplomacy at the South African Zionist Federation, noted that “the boycott of Jewish businesses has a long history in the BDS movement going back more than a decade, with Jewish businesses or those with Jewish management frequently targeted. What’s more, commercial boycotts against Israel have been a complete failure internationally. Since the boycott movement started, trade between Israel and South Africa has actually increased on average.

“BDS has many other failed boycott attempts,” he said. “One that comes to mind is the failed Woolworths ‘tomato’ boycott, which also produced zero results, other than a pig’s head placed in the kosher section of a supermarket. BDS may be trying to intimidate smaller Jewish businesses, but as yet, it hasn’t shown any signs that it has the capability of undertaking a full-fledged boycott campaign.”

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SAZF takes on Judge Desai for his conduct

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The South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) has predictably come in for some heavy criticism by the anti-Israel lobby for lodging a complaint against retired Judge Siraj Desai with the Judicial Conduct Committee (JCC).

Last week, the SAZF lodged a complaint with the JCC against the judge, who recently took up the position of the Legal Services Ombudsman.

The SAZF said Desai’s actions and conduct over many years was plainly in breach of the code of judicial conduct and “entirely unbecoming of a judicial officer”.

This was a bombshell complaint against Desai, who is a well-known social activist and respected jurist described by many as the “people’s judge”.

The detailed complaint against him spans many years from 2009 till the present, highlighting Desai’s actions and conduct connecting him to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, and the pro-Palestinian movement.

The SAZF said that Desai’s alleged misconduct included his involvement in political controversy, misusing the prestige of his judicial office to advance his personal political interests, failing to recuse himself in a case in which he was obviously conflicted, and involving himself in activities that used the position of his judicial office to promote a partisan political cause.

Desai, who served the legal profession for 43 years, retired as a Western Cape High Court judge last year, and almost immediately accepted the ombud position having been appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa. The objective of the ombud is to advance and safeguard the integrity of the legal profession in South Africa But more importantly, it’s to ensure fair, efficient, and effective investigation of complaints of alleged misconduct by legal practitioners.

Former Judge Rex van Schalkwyk of the Rule of Law Project told the SA Jewish Report, “This isn’t about whether one is pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. Did Judge Desai conform with the ethics that constrain him as a judge? Having looked at the complaint, there is at least a case that needs to be answered. Judge Desai must give an explanation about his conduct. It’s legitimate for this issue to have been brought to the professional body of the JSC [Judicial Service Commission] and to be dealt with specifically in accordance with the principle of law not in accordance with the political issues which will cloud the complaint.”

The SAZF has been lambasted for the complaint, which it lodged on 10 June, by members of Africa4Palestine and the South African BDS Coalition. They have set up a Facebook page called “Hands off Judge Desai”.

The anti-Israel lobbyists described the complaint as “spurious” and “baseless”, and called it a “vengeful attack”. Africa4Palestine criticised the “questionable” timing of the complaint, saying that it was an attempt to distract from its complaint lodged against the country’s outgoing Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.

Last Friday, 11 June, the JCC appeal panel said it was continuing its deliberations on Mogoeng Mogoeng’s appeal against a misconduct finding for his remarks about Israel brought by Africa4Palestine.

Earlier this year, the JCC found that Mogoeng had contravened the code of judicial conduct with comments made during a webinar in June last year and subsequently at a prayer meeting where he declared that he would never apologise for the views he expressed. In the webinar, hosted by the Jerusalem Post, he said he believed South Africa would do well to consider adopting a more objective stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and said “hatred” of the Jewish state could “attract unprecedented curses upon our nation”.

In his March ruling, Judge Phineas Mojapelo stressed that “judges are to stay out of politics”.

The South African BDS Coalition said the SAZF’s complaint against Desai was in “retaliation for the failure to secure a seat at the Constitutional Court by Judge Unterhalter” accusing him of being an “apologist for Zionism”. Earlier this year, the SA BDS Coalition demanded that Unterhalter not be selected to the Constitutional Court for his association with the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

Rolene Marks, SAZF’s legal forum spokesperson said, “At issue here, is the role that judges play in our society. The reason that there is a judicial code of conduct is that judges need to be seen not to be promoting political causes since they may have to rule on them at some stage. However, it’s clear through his comments that although Judge Desai is entitled to his views in terms of freedom of speech, he is bound by the judicial code of conduct, and his actions fall outside of that.”

According to the SAZF, last year, Desai while being interviewed on an Iranian YouTube channel, made “inappropriate comments” likening Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini to President Nelson Mandela.

“To compare a world-renowned peacemaker like President Mandela to the despotic founding leader of a regime notorious for its disregard of human rights, and which is responsible for gross human rights violations, including torture and violence against thousands of people, is an insult to the people of South Africa, the Constitution, and our democratic institutions,” the statement said.

It added that Desai also made “several other shocking remarks” during the interview regarding foreign policy, including referring to the United States – an important trading and diplomatic partner of South Africa – as the “great Satan” which demonstrated that Desai had “engaged in conduct incompatible with his status as a judge of the high court.”

According to the SAZF, Desai has a long history of endorsing and promoting the anti-Israel political lobby.

In 2009, Desai was part of a South African delegation of pro-Palestinian activists that was to take part in a protest known as “the Gaza Freedom March” organised by the Palestine Solidarity Alliance. It was during this time that the Cairo Declaration was signed which was a call for a global movement for Palestinian rights and a boycott of Israel. The SAZF said Desai “lent his stature as a judge to the drafting and issuing of the declaration”.

In 2015, he gave an order in a review application brought by pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist organisations and activists against the City of Cape Town. There is allegedly no record in the judgment of him having disclosed his interest in BDS to the parties in that case, according to the complaint.

In 2018, Desai welcomed Hamas during its visit to South Africa and said, “We hope to make an intellectual contribution to the resolution of the Palestinian issue, but we take our leadership from you, you are the leadership on the ground.”

“This, despite the fact that the Hamas charter includes direct calls for violence against Jewish people and the destruction of the state of Israel. Using the prestige of the judicial office to publicly promote an extremist organisation is clearly contrary to the precepts underlying the judicial code of conduct,” said the complaint.

“Judge Desai has long conducted himself well outside the realms of the judicial code,” said the SAZF. “It’s therefore crucial for maintaining public confidence in the judiciary that manifest judicial misconduct is called to account.”

Desai told News24 through his spokesperson, Professor Usuf Chikte, that he was “unapologetic in his stance in condemnation of apartheid Israel”.

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