Why this year isn’t like all others
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.
The never-ending voice
And Charlton Heston came down from Mount Sinai and gave us the ten commandments. Oops! Sorry, make that Moses. And he was carrying the tablets with the Big 10, repeated this week in Deuteronomy as part of Moses’ review of the past 40 years. He describes how G-d spoke those words in a mighty voice that didn’t end.
Rashi writes that Moses is contrasting G-d’s voice with human voices. The finite voice of a human being, even a Pavarotti, will fade and falter. It cannot go on forever. But the voice of the Almighty didn’t end, didn’t weaken. It remained strong throughout.
Is this all the great prophet had to teach us about the voice of G-d? That it was a powerful baritone? Is the greatness of the Infinite One, that he didn’t suffer from shortness of breath, that He didn’t need a few puffs of Ventolin? Is this a meaningful motivation for the Jews to accept the Torah?
Moses was the greatest of all prophets. He foresaw what no other prophet could see. Perhaps he saw his people becoming caught up in the civilization of ancient Greece, in the beauty, culture, philosophy, and art of the day. And they might question, “Is Torah still relevant?”
Perhaps he foresaw Jews empowered by the industrial revolution, where they might have thought Torah to be somewhat backward. Or maybe it was during the Russian Revolution, where faith and religion were deemed to be absolutely primitive.
Maybe Moses saw our own generation, with space shuttles and satellites, teleprompters and technology. And he saw young people questioning whether the good book still spoke to them.
And so, Moses tells us that the voice that thundered from Sinai was no ordinary voice. This was a voice that wasn’t only powerful at the time, it didn’t end. And it still rings out, still resonates, and speaks to each of us in every generation and every part of the world.
Revolutions come and go, but revelation is eternal. The voice of Sinai continues to proclaim eternal truths that never become passé or irrelevant. Honour your parents, revere them, look after them in their old age. Live moral lives, don’t tamper with the sacred fibre of family life. Dedicate one day every week, and keep that day holy. Stop the madness. Turn your back on the rat race, and rediscover your humanity and your children. Don’t be guilty of greed, envy, dishonesty, or corruption.
Are these ideas and values dated? Are these commandments tired or irrelevant? On the contrary. They speak to us now as perhaps never before.
Does anyone know this today better than us South Africans?
The G-dly voice has lost none of its strength, none of its majesty. The mortal voice of man declines and fades into oblivion. Politicians and spin-doctors come and go, but the heavenly sound reverberates down the ages.
Moses knew what he was saying. Torah is truth, and truth is forever. The voice of G-d shall never be stilled.
Memory versus history
Devarim is the parsha associated with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish national day of mourning. After Shabbos, we will recall the destruction of our holy temple nearly 2 000 years ago.
But why remember? The world cannot understand why we go on about the Holocaust, and that was less than 80 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. “Some 1 700 years ago,” was the answer. Whereupon Napoleon stated with conviction that a people who never forgot their past would be destined to forever have a future.
Elie Wiesel famously once said that Jews have 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 led the Jews into captivity, they sat down and wept. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept remembering Zion.” What did they cry of? 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 were not 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. Today, there are no more Babylonians, and the people who now live in Rome aren’t the Romans who destroyed the second temple. Those nations became history while we, inspired by memory, emerged revitalised and regenerated and forever it will be true that am Yisrael chai (the people of Israel live).
Only if we refuse to forget can we hope to rebuild one day. Indeed, the Talmud assures us, “Whosoever mourns for Jerusalem, will merit to witness her rejoicing.” We dare not forget. We need to observe our national day of mourning this Saturday night and Sunday. Forego the movies and the restaurants. 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 soon.
Exile is a state of being
In parshas Massei, the Torah traces our journey in the desert by listing all 42 camps that we passed through. This is a forerunner for Jewish history. Even the most superficial knowledge of Jewish history reveals that a large chunk of it has been spent in exile. Under the nations of the world, the Jewish people suffered immensely. How are we meant to understand this? There are four main points to appreciate.
Chazal tell us that the Jewish people are so beloved by Hashem, that when they were sent into exile for their sins, Hashem accompanied them. The greatest demonstration of His love is the fact that the Jewish people have survived almost 2 000 years of persecution and numerous attempts to annihilate us. So great is this miracle, it surpasses the collective miracles of the exodus of Egypt and our wandering in the desert and in the land of Israel.
Second, when the Jews wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, their survival was supernatural – they were wholly dependent on Hashem. He rained down bread from the sky, provided a well of water, and protected us with seven miraculous clouds. This was the education needed to sear into our consciousness the perspective that Hashem is the source of everything, and we must strive to fulfil His will.
Land, prosperity, and institutions of statehood were put at the Jewish people’s disposal not as goals in themselves, but as a means for the fulfilment of the Torah. When Jews lost sight of their true purpose and began to emulate the ideals of the nations around them, worshipping wealth and prosperity, they were deprived of those things that they had begun to worship, leaving their land with only the Torah to guide them.
Exile was meant, first and foremost, to benefit and perfect us. The Jewish people witnessed powerful empires disappear while we endured, devoid of might and majesty, but loyal to Hashem. How many times have Jews been offered a doorway to earthly pleasure and security if only they renounce their loyalty to G-d? How many times did Jews scorn the lure of wealth and pleasure and even sacrificed their most precious treasures in this world – their wives, children, brothers and sisters – for Hashem?
Chazal tell us that a third benefit of exile was to inspire conversion. Indeed, there have been many great converts in our history.
Fourth, the Jewish people were scattered throughout the world for our protection. If we were all under the jurisdiction of one ruler, he would attempt to destroy us all.
Exile isn’t just banishment from Israel. Exile is a state of being that also applies to individuals. Every person experiences tranquil periods when he finds it easy to learn Torah and pray with concentration. Yet when times are hard, he struggles. It’s specifically at these times that he mustn’t become empty of Torah and prayer, rather, he must strive to sanctify “desert” periods.
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