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Why this year isn’t like all others

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Religion

As South African Jewry gather around the seder table to commemorate the exodus from Egypt this Saturday night, it will also be a poignant reminder of the passing of the country’s first COVID-19 patient who died on this exact day a year ago.

A lot has happened in the year since last Passover, when coronavirus derailed everyone’s Pesach plans. Families hunkered down and held miniature stay-at-home sederim.

Grandparents, usually the guests of honour, were concealed in protective cocoons, deprived of the annual delight of grandchildren regaling them with ancient tales of slavery and redemption.

As sad as we were to be away from friends and extended family, it was a worthwhile price to pay for having a Passover together this year – or so we believed. Little did we know.

Although there was a certain amount of foreshadowing typical of a horror movie, last year, South Africans still had scant idea of what lay in store for them.

There were petrifying scenes coming from hospitals in Europe battling to cope with patients gasping for breath, but they remained far from our backyard.

No one would have believed it then that the death toll would rise from one to more than 52 000 a year later. Or that the number of infections would go from 927 cases (this time last Passover) to the staggering 1.53 million confirmed cases today.

During last year’s Passover, barely two weeks into the novelty of a nationwide lockdown, the country was in a sort of honeymoon stupor of unity and solidarity. It was only later that the lockdown’s devastating, ripple-down economic effects and the seemingly catastrophic impact on people’s livelihoods began to be felt.

For generations Jewish families have gathered for the first night of Passover to recount the 10 plagues – blood, frogs, pestilence, death – and to remember how Hashem delivered the Jewish people from bondage in Egypt thousands of years ago.

This Saturday in homes across the country, families will once again ask why this night is different from all other nights. This year, the plague element of the Haggadah story feels even more real than it did last year. That extra plague – the 11th one – has stealthily crept into our age-old story, adding an unwelcome modern touch – as if one were needed.

Feelings of anxiety 12 months ago have now been replaced with a hollow despair and emptiness after a year of death and dying, isolation, and too much change. While there may be a few extra people around the seder table – given the recent drop in the number of infections since our last COVID-19 surge – we approach this night with a false sense of security.

This COVID-19 yoyo has taken us from one panicked surge to the next sweet lull, making nutcases of us all. As the number of those infected with the virus tapers off, so too does our vigilance and caution. However, there is a looming third-wave cloud on the horizon.

And a fourth and maybe a fifth. Lately, our joy and gratitude has overflowed at weddings, Barmitzvahs, and other simchas that have been hurriedly taking place around the country before the Omer (and the next wave of infections).

That blissful sense of almost normality as music fills the air, is reminiscent of days gone by. But no one can deny it, it’s a joy tinged with foreboding and unspoken dread as winter approaches.

Last year, we were stockpiling toilet paper, this year we wish we could stockpile vaccines – something we hadn’t even dreamt about.

Names such as AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson weren’t part of our everyday vocabulary as they are now. We were still obsessed with phrases like social distancing, hand sanitising, and mask wearing.

We’ve become armchair experts about variants and vaccine rollouts (or the lack thereof!).

Who knows what next year’s Passover will look like.

One thing’s for sure, as we move from micro-seders to slightly more guests this year, it’s the enduring power of this story of freedom and the favourite table-banging melodies of the festival that will give us hope.

Maybe next year in Jerusalem. We just need the airports to stay open.

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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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