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Wake up and smell the coffee

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Religion

There’s a well-known adage attributed to the founder of the Chassidic movement that bears reflection. Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov was a hidden mystic who lived in the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine. Unknown to the world initially, he was taught the mystical and hidden aspect of the Torah by none other than Achiya Hashiloni, the famous teacher of Elijah the prophet.

Reb Yisrael was born into a dark world – the Jewish people’s morale and connection to G-d was at an all-time low – and it seemed that they were at a point of simply dying a natural death brought on by the vicissitudes of exile and immeasurable suffering.

Although he worked undercover at first, Reb Yisrael, who eventually got the title Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), revealed his teachings to the world and through his wisdom and insight, he revived a weary generation of Jews and caused them to flourish.

Today, the Chassidic movement is alive and well, and through principles of serving G-d with joy, seeing the divine hand orchestrating history, and showing genuine care and concern for one’s fellow, a fresh breath of air was blown into the Jewish people.

One of the famous teachings of the Baal Shem Tov is that everything you see and hear is a lesson in divine service. This world is interconnected, and G-d is found in everything and everyone. Also, G-d, whose guiding hand directs mankind, speaks through the natural. Humans just need to be perceptive and connect the dots.

We have and still are going through a very dark period in our history, and recent events often stop us in our tracks and beg the question: why? What’s this all about?

Now I’m no mystic, nor seer, but I’m compelled to ask the question: what lesson is there to be learnt from what I see and hear? This world isn’t haphazard, and there is a recurrent message G-d is trying to give to us.

For me, two themes immediately emerge.

The first is, “I can’t breathe”. It was initially sparked off by the cruel handling of George Floyd that cascaded into unprecedented civil unrest, and just more than a week ago, we witnessed the tragic, inexplicable loss of 45 holy Jews on Lag B’Omer, whose lives too were extinguished with the words “I can’t breathe.”

The second is the ravaging fires that we have witnessed locally and internationally. Mass destruction has been wrought on institutions of learning and healing, natural resources charred and burned to the ground. Just google “recent fires”, and you will see the world is burning.

What’s happening here, dear Baal Shem Tov?

We are in the midst of the Jewish year 5781 – the numerical value of 81 in Hebrew is made up of two letters, phey (80) and aleph (1). Together, these two letters spell out the world af. Af is nose in Hebrew, the aperture through which we bring in breath and life into our bodies. Af can also mean wrath, anger – a destructive force that ravages everything in its path.

Our world and its inhabitants are in turmoil. Our selfish greed to dominate has trampled on the inherent right of every human being to be recognised as a valuable part of society.

Peer pressure, politics, and man’s animal cravings has extinguished the privilege of every individual to be respected with tolerance, acceptance, brotherhood, and love. The world is screaming, “I can’t breathe!” Life has been sucked out of us, we have been trampled on, we are doing the trampling, and the world is calling out for help.

What happens when we continue to live life in this manner – when it’s all about me and nothing about you? We unleash the fires of dissention, hatred, and intolerance, and it becomes so loud and so overwhelming, it destroys everything in its path and leaves a world burned and charred.

The Baal Shem Tov, however, wouldn’t leave it at that. This viewpoint just engenders a sense of hopelessness and inertia. Reb Yisrael also teaches that everything in life is good, G-d is good, and one must look beyond the surface and expose the divine.

You can take the word af and reverse it – phey, aleph. That’s an acronym for the Hebrew words pla’ot areinu (I will show you wonders). G-d promises us that there will come a time when we will see wonders, we will merit the birth of a world that is filled with love, healing, and connection. The burnt ground will sprout new shoots, new life, and a promise of a better brighter world.

This isn’t pie in the sky. It’s a simple reversal of letters. It’s a simple change of attitude. It’s a commitment to live life on a higher consciousness where we make space for another and we understand that we are really one.

We translate this into action by performing acts of goodness and kindness and doing mitzvot (commandments of the Torah). Each unadulterated act of selflessness and connection brings G-dly light into this world, and it encourages the growth of new shoots.

This weekend, we celebrate the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai (Shavuot). This was a wonderous event, where the Jewish people stood humbly at the foot of a mountain and pledged allegiance to G-d and His law. We promised to be faithful servants of the divine and a light unto the nations.

So, the lesson is clear. Let’s douse the fire of wrath in our hearts, let’s stamp out all the faribels we have, big and small, let’s stop trampling on others. Let’s breathe fresh air back into our souls. Let this be the air of a shared common humanity that asks to live in peace with itself, with others, and with G-d!

Come on. Wake up, smell the coffee, a brand-new day is dawning. It’s going to be wonder-full!

Chag sameach!

  • Rebbetzin Aidel Kazilsky is a radio and television host and an inspirational speaker who teaches the wisdom of Torah and applies it to contemporary times.

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Religion

Learning to fall teaches us to fly

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“As an eagle that stirs up its nest, hovering over its young”

Rashi, one of our greatest commentators, explains that Hashem is compared to an eagle since eagles are so different to other birds. He says that they are the kings of all birds, and soar very high. Afraid only of man’s bow and arrow, the eagle carries its young on its back. Other birds are afraid of the eagle, and have no choice but to choose the lesser of two evils and carry their babies underneath them in their talons.

This Rashi is problematic:

Humans carry their babies in their arms. A monkey holds its young in much the same way. And a dog or cat picks up its offspring with its mouth. But what about birds? Do they ever carry their young on their backs?

Surprisingly, some birds do carry their offspring from one place to another, either to get them away from danger or to move them about as part of their daily care. Aquatic birds let their chicks ride on their backs while they are swimming. Sometimes when the parent dives, the little one is carried underwater. And when the parent flies, the chick gets its first taste of being airborne without even using its own wings.

But, eagles? They just don’t do this. So what’s Rashi talking about?

Maybe our translation of nesher is incorrect. There’s the opinion that a nesher is a vulture, but no vultures carry their young on their backs either, so what’s going on? With respect to previous generations in Torah thought, we are never so arrogant as to say that we have superior knowledge. The further we move away from the Sinai experience, the more humble we become regarding the Torah knowledge of previous generations. Rashi lived almost a thousand years ago, and was a giant of Torah. So the best we can do is humbly admit that we don’t understand this Rashi.

One possible answer is brought by Rabbi Slifkin, who explains that when an eagle is teaching its eaglets to fly, it throws them from the nest and dives below to catch them on its back, ensuring that it breaks their fall before it breaks their neck. Perhaps this is what Rashi witnessed and wanted to use to describe Hashem’s relationship with each one of us.

Not only did Hashem take us out of Egypt on the “wings of eagles”, and not only will we be taken to the land of Israel when Moshiach comes on the “wings of eagles”. But every single day, Hashem gentle nudges us out of our comfort zone and while we are flailing and wondering how we’ll cope, Hashem is ready to swoop down and catch us. It’s that fall that teaches us how to soar!

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Religion

Seeing the big, beautiful picture

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This week’s fundraising campaign for Community Security Organisation Medical in Cape Town and Hatzolah in Johannesburg beautifully replaces our obsession with daily infection statistics, hospital occupancies, and rates of transmission with awareness of (and gratitude for) the number of lives saved, families cared for, and thousands vaccinated in protection against the virus.

However, once you’ve made your generous contribution, that nagging feeling comes back: how many deaths in our community this year? What are the global and local statistics of antisemitism and crime? How bad is emigration from South Africa? Are there any young people excited about future – or even present – Jewish life in South Africa?

How are the numbers?

Well, it depends on what you’re counting.

The short-term vision created by the numbers gives us valuable data that should inform our long-term planning and community development strategies to ensure that we mitigate against the possible consequences of those realities, and more critically, reverse those trends.

Built into our spiritual and collective national DNA however, is the ability to see, act upon, and live with the vision of a far greater picture.

What’s that vision?

“You are standing, today, all of you, before Hashem your G-d.” This is the message of the Shabbos before (and that blesses the week of) Rosh Hashanah.

Close to 1 000 years ago, Rashi unpacked for us in this verse a powerful message that speaks to us today, not only as a legacy from our ancestors three millennia ago, and more than just by virtue of our souls’ presence there. No. It’s way beyond that.

Today, in September 2021, as you read this Torah article in the SA Jewish Report, you are standing, joined by the hundreds of millions of Jews in each and every generation before, the hundreds of thousands of our brethren who lived in South Africa, as well as every generation that’s yet to materialise – “before Hashem your G-d”.

“You are standing, today, all of you, before Hashem your G-d.”

When we live a life aligned to the infinite wisdom of Torah, the atomic power of each mitzvah, and the unconditional unity of our entire nation across the borders of times, space, and social class, then we can be confident in our future.

The numbers are great.

And we are assured of a sweet New Year with an abundance of revealed goodness for all of us.

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Religion

Prostrating before the King of King of Kings

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There is a three-word phrase in our formal prayers that conveys the essence of Judaism.

Being such a powerful phrase, it features appropriately in every formal prayer service, as well as in the highpoint of the prayers of the high holidays.

The phrase forms part of the Aleinu prayer, composed by Joshua ben Nun upon entering the holy land. In the Aleinu prayer, we declare our indebtedness to G-d for having given us a unique relationship with Him, “and we bow, prostrate, and express our appreciation before Melech Malchei haMelachim, the Holy One, blessed be He”.

The phrase “Melech Malchai haMelachim”, which means “The King of King of Kings” contains the key to understanding what being Jewish is all about.

Who are these three sets of kings?

The first king is obvious. It’s G-d. G-d is the king of the universe – Melech haOlam as we refer to Him in all our formal blessings. The world is G-d’s. He has the power. He calls the shots. He is its king.

The second reference to kings must refer to a group of people who also have power, who also call the shots. But if G-d is king, how can that be? The answer must be that G-d is a very special king – a king that chooses to share his kingship and confer his royal power on others, empowering them to be rulers in their own right. G-d does call the shots. It’s just that one of the shots He calls is to call on people to call the shots too.

And the third reference to kings? Who else could possibly be king other than G-d and His human co-royal partners? The third set of kings must refer to people who are unable to see themselves as being crowned by G-d, but they are willing to be crowned by people. And so it becomes the responsibility of G-d’s royal partners to take a feather from G-d’s crown and use their own crowns to empower those people and coronate them as kings as well.

This is what it means to be Jewish. The Jew recognises that G-d is king of the world. In addition, he or she recognises that G-d conferred His royal powers on a people to be royal too – “a kingdom of priests”. And ultimately, it’s the responsibility of His Jewish royal priests to confer their royal powers onto others, to empower and elevate them to their own personal kingdoms, to play their own part in taking care of the world.

Melech Malchei haMelachim – the King of Kings of Kings. Quite possibly the most profound three Jewish words of all. And yet, there doesn’t seem to be a single official translation that translates them accurately. The message seems to have been lost in translation.

Our task over the high holidays in particular, and at every formal prayer service in general, is to correctly translate these three words, not only into English, but into our lives as well, and thereby accomplish our majestic mission as Jews.

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