What is the hardest faith of all?
Faith is a loaded word. When hearing or reading it, one person’s heart can swell with serenity and connection, whereas their neighbour’s heart might contract with patronisation and disdain.
RABBI LEVI AVTZON
Let me be clear that the above is not in reference to faith in Hashem. I’m talking about a tougher faith, perhaps, faith in the goodness and potential of our fellow human beings.
The story is told that a certain sage who survived the holocaust was asked how he could believe in G‑d after seeing what he saw. He responded, “Who else do you think I should believe in? Man? Am I to put my faith and destiny into the human being who could gas millions or watch the atrocity in silence?”
Belief in our fellow human being, not as a g-d, but as someone with the capacity for redemption and kindness, seems to be a bigger leap of faith than to believe in the existence and goodness of the creator.
Allow me to quote from an incredible 2008 TED talk from Samantha Power (later to be United States ambassador to the United Nations):
“I spent the better part of a decade looking at American responses to mass atrocity and genocide. I’d like to start by sharing with you one moment that to me sums up what there is to know about American and democratic responses to mass atrocity.
“That moment came on April 21 1994, 14 years ago, almost, in the middle of the Rwandan genocide, in which 800 000 people would be systematically exterminated by the Rwandan government and some extremist militia. On April 21, the New York Times reported that somewhere between 200 000 and 300 000 people had already been killed in the genocide. It was in the paper, not on the front page. It was a lot like the Holocaust coverage, it was buried in the paper. Rwanda itself was not seen as newsworthy, and amazingly, genocide itself was not seen as newsworthy.
“But on April 21, a wonderfully honest moment occurred. That was that an American congresswoman named Patricia Schroeder from Colorado met a group of journalists. One of the journalists said to her, ‘What’s up? What’s going on in the US government?’ Two hundred thousand to 300 000 people have just been exterminated in the past couple of weeks in Rwanda. It’s two weeks into the genocide at that time, but of course, at that time you don’t know how long it’s going to last. And the journalist said, ‘Why is there so little response out of Washington? Why no hearings, no denunciations, no people getting arrested in front of the Rwandan embassy or in front of the White House? What’s the deal?’
“And she said – she was so honest – she said, ‘It’s a great question. All I can tell you is that in my congressional office in Colorado and my office in Washington, we’re getting hundreds and hundreds of calls about the endangered ape and gorilla population in Rwanda, but nobody is calling about the people. The phones just aren’t ringing about the people.’”
I remember hearing that talk a few years ago, and it has haunted me ever since. I felt a similar heart-drop when reading online a major headline about ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) destroying ancient artefacts in Iraq and Syria, and yet on the same day, dozens of murders took place and they were relegated to the bottom of the page in small type. Artefact destruction is, indeed, terrible, but when it seems to overshadow the heinousness of murder of human life, I believe that we have lost a fundamental value.
On Rosh Hashanah, we commemorate the creation of Adam and Eve. What’s interesting is that we don’t commemorate the new year on the first day of creation when the Torah tells us that the world was born into existence, but rather we memorialise the sixth day, the final day of creation when the first human beings were born.
Until the creation of Adam and Eve – human beings with free choice – G-d was a king without a people, a father without a child, and a lover without a beloved. This is the day that life truly began on earth.
Yes, it’s a Torah value to respect mother earth, to respect the animal kingdom. And yes, we have often failed at this task and we must do better. But when we hear warped ideas about the human being as the destroyer of this world, and the fact that the world would be better off without us, it’s a false and dangerous narrative.
False, because G-d has placed us here for a reason, and as a collective, we have done – and continue to do – much more good than evil.
Dangerous, because when we lose faith in humanity, human life becomes cheaper than gorillas and ancient buildings.
Each of us is created in the image of the creator, and is full of overwhelming goodness and beauty. Our job is to reveal and activate the goodness instead of highlighting and magnifying the foibles and weaknesses. We can and ought to look at each other with a good eye and an open heart.
In the South African climate, we are blessed to live in a culture of kindness and forgiveness, surrounded by some of the sweetest and happiest people on earth. Yet, often we find that the conversation and sentiment is driven by the actions of a minority of individuals, which then paints our perception of reality in faded and doomed colours.
To believe in the inherent goodness of each other is not a fool’s naivete. It is an act of braveness in the face of cynicism. Yes, we must be careful and cautious, and keep up our guard, but in no way should that warp our perception of our fellow seven billion people all created in the image of their creator.
Wishing you and yours a good and sweet year.
- Rabbi Levi Avtzon is the newly appointed rabbi at Linksfield Shul, a presenter on ChaiFM, and a writer on the Judaism website Chabad.org.
Why we refuse to forget
Devarim is the parsha associated with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish national day of mourning. This Shabbos, we read the famous Haftarah of Chazon, the vision of Isaiah. And, next Thursday, we will recall the destruction of our holy temple nearly 2 000 years ago.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman, Sydenham Shul
But why remember? The world cannot understand why we go on about the Holocaust, and that was only 75 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. “About 1 700 years ago,” was the answer. Whereupon Napoleon stated with conviction that a people who never forgot its past would be destined to forever have a future.
Elie Wiesel once said, “Jews 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 were led into captivity, the Jews sat down and wept. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept remembering Zion.” What did they cry for? 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 weren’t 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. The Babylonian and Roman destroyers of old are no more. Those nations became history while we, inspired by memory, emerged revitalised and regenerated, and forever it will be true that am Yisrael chai.
Only if we refuse to forget can we hope to rebuild one day. If we are to make our return to Zion successful and permanent, if our people are to harbour the hope of being restored and revived internationally, then we dare not forget. We need to observe our national day of mourning next Wednesday night and Thursday. Forego whatever entertainment options your COVID-19 lockdown allows. 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. May it be speedily in our day.
Strength in diversity
The double portion of Matos/Massei deals with Moshe divvying up the land for the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
Rabbi Ryan Goldstein, West Street Shul
Moshe didn’t choose land based on population size, demographics, or even agricultural usefulness, it was all decided through the casting of lots. Leaving such an arduous task in the capable hands of Hashem was the best way to dodge any farribles.
The Twelve Tribes, once settled in the Holy Land, could finally bring to fruition the mammoth task of being a light to the rest of humanity. As the prophet Isaiah foretells, “Ki mitZiyon tetzei Torah [Torah will come forth out of Zion].”
The harmonious unity of the Twelve Tribes in one centralised place was very much like an orchestra, with multiple sounds coming together to form a beautiful symphony.
In fact, that’s how Hashem prefers things. He displays this to us through the diversity of nature. If Hashem wanted only one way of doing things, then nature would have sufficed with one type of fauna. For example, there would be only penguins around or zebras. Forget about the beautiful and intricate multitudes of glorious beasts, big and small, that inhabit our earth and deep seas. Hashem makes it obvious that He wants unity to thrive out of diversity.
The same is true of the tribes of Israel. Hashem wasn’t happy with Israel being represented by an Avraham figure, an Isaac, or even a Jacob alone. And even though Jacob was called Israel, that wasn’t our legacy until we became bnei Yisrael (the children of Israel). Why? Harmony through diversity. The tribe of Yehuda was earmarked for kingship, Yosef were to be the politicians, Issachar could sit and learn Torah all day, Zevulun were the sea-faring merchants, Shimon were the educators, and Levi were the priests and temple workers. One man/identity couldn’t be all things.
And so it should be today. Our job is not to judge, and to be tolerant of the paths and journeys each person has in trying to make their legacy within the realm of Judaism and Torah.
Visiting the sick good for our spiritual health
There is a fundamental mitzvah that is alluded to in this week’s parsha. When Moshe addresses the Jewish people in the stand-off against the rebel faction led by Korach, he says the following, “If these die like the death of all men, and the visiting of all men is visited upon them, then it is not Hashem Who has sent me.” (Numbers 16:29)
Rabbi Yonatan Landau, Ohr Somayach Savoy
The Talmud in Nedarim 39B discusses these mysterious words. What is Moshe referring to when he says, “the visiting of all men is visited upon them”?
The Talmud explains that this alludes to the mitzvah of bikkur cholim – visiting the sick.
What exactly does this mitzvah entail, and what are some of the benefits we reap from it?
Torah authorities tell us that there are two main components of this mitzvah. First, we must take care of the needs of the ill person. This entails making sure that their health is looked after, and that they have adequate food and clothing. The Talmud recounts a story of the great Rabbi Akiva, who visited a sick student and took care to clean the room of its dust. This helped the student to recover. Furthermore, often the extra effort can make a difference to a person’s recovery.
Second, we must daven for the ill person. When we plead with Hashem, he recognises that the fate of the ill person is in divine hands, and thereby invokes divine compassion. Our rabbis teach us that as Hashem, so-to-speak, visits the sick, the divine presence is more concentrated above the bed of the ill person, and therefore it’s particularly powerful to daven in their room.
Those who perform this mitzvah acquire four main benefits.
In Parshas Vayeira, our rabbis teach that Hashem visited Abraham after his bris. This means that one who practices bikkur cholim is in fact acting like Hashem, who is the epitome of kindness and love. This is a fulfilment of the mitzvah of walking in Hashem’s way.
Performance of this mitzvah on a regular basis also helps you to become a kinder and more considerate person as the classic work, the Sefer ha-Chinuch, explains it – a person is influenced by the activities he involves himself in.
The commentator, Kli Yakar, adds that visiting the sick reminds us of our mortality, which serves as a stimulus to improve our ways.
Rav Avigdor Miller says that when we see others with an illness absent in ourselves, we acquire an appreciation for the myriad kindnesses that Hashem performs daily with our bodies.
Hashem should bless us with health especially in these difficult times, and let us try, albeit from a distance, to fulfil this vital mitzvah.
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