When most people think of a trip to South Africa, they think of the rich and diverse flora and fauna. Some think of safaris and game drives where you can see majestic animals normally only seen in the zoo placidly roaming the bush and grasslands. Ornithophiles, flock to South Africa to spot the 140 species of bird that are endemic or near endemic to that region, the most of any region in the world. And even plant lovers have what to see, as there are 13,000 vascular plant species only found in South Africa. But I found one species more fascinating than all the wild plants and animals; homo sapienus nativus, the local human beings.
Recently, I had the honor of traveling to South Africa with a delegation of over twenty dads from Detroit. We had been invited by Rabbi Warren Goldstein, the Chief Rabbi of South Africa, and you never turn down an invitation from anyone whose title starts with Chief Rabbi. Rabbi Goldstein, one of Jewry’s greatest modern visionaries, launched the Shabbos project six years ago as a way to engage Jews with one of our greatest gifts. This year, it was celebrated in 340 cities in over 100 countries, and touched over a million Jews all over the globe. When Rabbi Goldstein was here in Detroit recently, he met with a group of our dads who were peppering him with questions, and he said that the best way to learn about it was to see where it all started, the Johannesburg Jewish community. Ten months later, Partners Detroit was in Joburg to celebrate the Shabbos Project 2019 with him.
We were only in South Africa for a week, and many of us doubted we would ever be back, so we tried to shoehorn as much activities into a week as humanly possible. Thanks to the months of superlative planning by Rabbi Chaim Fink and the entire Partners Detroit staff, we seemed to do just that. From helicopter rides over the southern coast of Africa in Capetown, to game drives where we saw the Big Five (lion, rhino, water buffalo, leopard, and elephant) as well as so many other species, to visits to shantytowns, and Shabbos with the OG Shabbos Project, it was a non-stop whirlwind. But despite all the exotic tastes, sights and smells, I was most impressed with the people.
The Shabbos project started with a concert in the park with a Neo-Chassidic band called Zusha. While the singer was rocking back and forth, eyes closed, singing with great passion and emotion, and while the guitarist with his wild blonde peyos sidelocks spilling over his Fender Stratocaster was dishing out some heavy riffs, the community milled around the lawn, lackadaisically jovial in the back, watching serenely in the middle, and dancing with great enthusiasm in the front close to the stage.
But as soon as we entered the park we noticed something beautiful about the Johannesburg Jewish community. While the community members vary wildly in their level of Jewish observance, from those that don’t have Shabbos or Kosher as a part of their lives, and don’t wear kippahs or any other Jewish style garb, to people who are fully religious, wearing black velvet kippahs, and hats and jackets, there was no sense whatsoever of separation between the members of the community. You could tell that everyone knew each other, felt comfortable with each other, and indeed loved each other. In much of the Jewish world, communities are bifurcated between the Torah observant and non-observant with most children (and often adults) in one camp not having a single friend or close acquaintance in the other camp. In South Africa, this is not the case. A Jew, is a Jew, is a Jew, is a Jew. I love you for it. I’ll dance with you, hug you, and connect with you just because you’re part of my people, no other criteria necessary. It was beautiful.
If Jewish unity was the first lesson I learnt from the people of South Africa, gratitude was the second. On Sunday, our group went to visit Soweto. Soweto, short for South West Townships is officially part of the Johannesburg municipality, but it was actually created to be a separate place for the black people to live during the Apartheid era. The Apartheid government even had mining companies deposit all their dug up dirt into large long “mountains” ringing Soweto, so that the black people living inside would only be able to get in and out from one entrance, where they conveniently built a military base. It also means that the people in Johannesburg wouldn’t even see the people living in dire poverty in Soweto right near them. Apartheid may have ended as a policy twenty five years ago, but Soweto is still entirely black and mostly poor. It is a large area, about 50,000 acres (77 square miles), and it contains somewhere between the 1.2M people the census claims it has, and the 5M people the inhabitants claim live there, the discrepancy due to the many people living below the government radar.
We were brought to Soweto by “Big Mike,” who grew up in Soweto, and now runs a non-profit he co-founded there. He started our tour by taking us to the wealthier areas of Soweto, where soccer players and businessmen who grew up in Soweto and choose to live their despite their wealth. They had large beautiful homes, with unique architecture, as each one of their houses was built custom. They had beautiful cars; we saw McLarens, Mercedes G-wagons, and Audi R10’s, cars that would be respectable in the most coveted zip codes in the US.
From there, Big Mike took us to see what they call Matchbox houses, not names so because of their spaciousness. They are standard issue government houses, they are unattached on either side, and having been inside one of them, I can certainly say that they are bigger than a matchbox, but not by much. They usually have running water, and often have pirated electricity which means that a live wire is spliced from a utility line into the house, not a safe and practical way to do things. But at least the inhabitants of matchboxes have their own houses, with a yard all around it.
Then there are the “hostels.” These are long low buildings that were originally built to house the all-male mine workers. When the apartheid government started pushing the blacks into Soweto, they simply put a bunch of walls up in the hostels and turned them into tiny “homes” each one separated from its neighbors by a cinderblock wall. But at least the people in the hostels have brick walls.
The last place Big Mike took us was the shantytowns, most notably, the largest shantytown in the Kliptown part of Soweto, where some 50,000 people live in grave poverty. The homes in Kliptown are made of anything the owners can find; corrugated steel sheets, pieces of plywood, scrap metal, old particle board. Everything is somehow nailed together, and the roof is usually so porous that most people have a tarp on the roof to make it “waterproof.” There is garbage everywhere, literally everywhere. Old plastic bottles and bags, newspapers, beer bottles, if it was consumed and thrown away, it’s probably on the floor in Kliptown. And there are no streets in these shanty towns, just cracked mud paths between ramshackle houses falling over each other.
The people in Kliptown often don’t have shoes. We saw women passing by carrying impossibly large loads on their heads, canvas sacks filled with plastics they pulled out of dumpsters, headed to the recyclers who will give them maybe a dollar for their day’s efforts. Unemployment in Soweto hovers around 40%. Three square meals a day is a dream for most people. When asked to describe what it’s like to live in a tin shanty, Big Mike said, “when it’s hot, you boil, when it’s cold, you freeze, and when it rains, you’re wet.’ He was speaking from personal experience.
Strangely, for all the poverty around us, and I had never been in a poorer place in my life, the people were surprisingly happy. They greeted us, comparatively rich white interlopers, with smiles, waves, and greetings. We visited the Kliptown Youth Project, a non-profit program that provides children with a nutritious meal before school so that the children, who have to walk 30-45 to get to a decent school, will do that hike on a full stomach and start their day off right. After school, the Kliptown Youth Project has tutors to help them with their homework, and extra classes in computers, budgeting and personal hygiene and safety. They boys of KYP put on a great performance for us, with a lot of singing in Zulu, rhythmic synchronized dancing, and drumming on the big rubber fishing boots they wore. Big Mike’s partner, who co-founded the KYP explained that they always emphasize to the children the importance of being grateful. “We may not have Nikes on our feet, but at least we have feet! We may not have dinner tonight, but at least we’re not in Syria, on the run for our lives.” Evidently, even in the depths of poverty in Soweto, you can find things to be grateful for, and if you focus on it enough, you can live happy lives in a world most people would find incredibly debilitating. At least we’re not in Syria…
In Ecclesiastes, King Solomon, the wisest of men, tells us (10:2), “The heart of the wise man is at his right, whereas the heart of the fool is at his left.” King Solomon is clearly not talking about biology, the last I checked wise men and fools all have the same pumping station, a fist sized muscle just to left of, and slightly behind the breastbone. So what does King Solomon mean?
One idea I heard (and I believe it is attributed to the Vilna Gaon) is to look at the letters. If you are standing shoulder to shoulder with the Hebrew alphabet, and you are the letter bet, to the right you see a gimmel and to the left a aleph. If you are a lamed, to the left you would see the chaf and to the right the mem. Which means, if you are a heart, a lev (spelled lamed, bet) to your left would be the letters aleph and chaf which spell ACH, only. To your right would be the letters gimmel and mem, which spell GAM, also. The difference between the fool and the wise man, says the Vilna Gaon, is does your heart always look at what others only have and you don’t, or does you heart look at what you also have, in addition to others.
If you want to focus on the fact that you ONLY have x,y, and z, while others have so much more than you, you are destined to be a miserable fool your whole life. But if you can always say, others have even less than me, others are running for their lives through minefields, others are losing family members in chemical weapons attacks, and I ALSO have both feet intact, and I ALSO have my family with me, and I ALSO don’t wake up every time a plane passes overhead, afraid that it will be unleashing poison gas on my town.
The people of Kliptown didn’t just pay lip service to this idea, we could see that they were genuinely happy, and that only happens by realizing that you ALSO have blessings in your life.
Of all the things I saw in South Africa, visiting Soweto left the greatest impression on me. It turns out that we all have something in common. We all wake up every morning and decide whether we have an ALSO life or an ONLY life, we all decide whether we are incredibly blessed or cursed and unfortunate. If the people of Kliptown can live an ALSO life, if there hearts can turn to the right, to the blessing, than surely our hearts can do the same, because we truly have so much. Let’s live RIGHTeously.
Parsha Dvar Torah
In the beginning of this week’s portion we read about how Eisov (Esau) sold his rights as the firstborn to his brother for a meal of beans. (Now there’s a guy who either really likes beans, or really doesn’t care about the rights of the firstborn, which include service in the Temple!) Let us look at the verses surrounding this monumental sale, and see what we can learn from it.
Yaakov was simmering a pottage when Eisov came in from the field, exhausted. Eisov said to Yaakov, “Please give me a swallow of this red [pottage], for I am exhausted.” He was therefore named Edom [Red]. Yaakov said, “As of this day, sell your birthright to me.” Eisov said, “Here I am about to die, what [good] is this birthright to me.” Yaakov said, “Swear to me as of this day.” He swore to him, and sold his birthright to Yaakov. Yaakov then gave Eisov bread and a pottage of lentils. He [Eisov] ate and drank, got up and left. [Thus] Eisov scorned the birthright. (Gen. 25:29-34)
As we can see, Eisov had no respect for the birthright and it was Yaakov the brother who did care for it that really deserved it anyway. (Mini lesson- If you don’t appreciate the gifts you get, you don’t deserve them.) But what we need to put the magnifying glass on, is the idea that the nation that came out of Eisov acquired their name through this event, and a strange name at that.
In the Holy Tongue (Biblical Hebrew) a person’s name represents the essence of what they are. The word for name sheim is spelled exactly the same way as sham, which means there, because a person’s name tells you where they are. For example, Avraham is called Avraham because it is an acronym for Av Hamon Goyim, Father of Many Nations, which he was as he fathered the Jews, and the Arabs (through Yishmael, his other son, the one we don’t invite to our Chanukah parties), and spiritually he was a patriarch to the world.
That being the case, how do we understand that Edom, the nation that came out of Eisov got their name from him asking for red beans? If Yaakov was making a split pea soup instead of red lentils, would the nation now be called Green? And maybe they should have been called Lentils because the pottage was a lentil pottage.
The reason Eisov’s nation was called Edom, red, is because that is the way he described the pottage when he saw it as it says “Please give me a swallow of this red [pottage], for I am exhausted.” He was therefore named Edom [Red]. What does that tell us about Eisov?
It tells us that he looked at things very superficially. He comes in and glances at a pot, and simply asks for some of the red stuff. He doesn’t even take the time to ascertain what it is. The color of something is the factor that one sees first, but reveals the least info about the identity of something. If Eisov would have been less superficial, less concerned with immediate gratification, he might have asked for some of the lentils or perhaps some of the nourishing food. But Eisov is the kind of person that doesn’t care for any delay in gratification, so he blurts out a request for the most surface aspect of the dish, in his rush for gratification.
This theme continues as he sells his rights as a firstborn, which would have given his progeny the rights to serve in the Temple, so that he can satiate his hunger. Imagine, if he would have simply waited and gone into the kitchen and made himself a grilled cheese sandwich, his children would possibly have been the ones who served in the different Temples for hundreds of years instead of us, Yaakov’s children! But that is not who Eisov is, as he says “Here I am about to die, what [good] is this birthright to me.” I.e. if I can’t get some immediate pleasure out of it, I’ll just trade it in for something I can enjoy right now! (This is also possibly why Eisov was born fully formed, which is how he got the name Eisov which means “made.” This showed that his core is something that expects everything all at once. Jacob was born normal which indicated that for him development was a necessary process.)
This character of Eisov of only looking at the superficial explains the name Edom, and how it represents the essence of Eisov the forebear of that nation. This is the exact opposite of Yaakov, who is willing to give up some of the lentils now in return for greatness in the future. We are the Children of Yaakov, we have inherited his spiritual genes, and therefore we have the ability to spurn the momentary pleasures of this world, in an attempt to build better character for our future, and for a glorious next world. In each of our lives we have a pottage that is red, enticing, and ready to deliver instant gratification, but we overcome the Edom in us, we spurn the momentary and choose the eternal.
The Parsha begins with Yitzchak and his wife Rivka, praying fervently for a child as they didn’t have one in twenty years of marriage. G-d grants them their wish and grants them twins. One of them is great and every time Rivka passes a Yeshiva he kicks indicating that he wants to learn. However, when she passes an idolatrous temple, the other guy is kicking away! This confuses Rivka, who didn’t know she had twins, so she goes to ask two scholars, Shem and Aver. They, through Divine Knowledge explain to her that she has two babies in her womb, both of who will be the father of great nations. They further tell her that there will be an inverse relationship between them, with one gaining power when the other loses it.
Soon two babies are born. The first comes out fully formed, and with a hairy coat of reddish hair, and he is called Eisov, which means “made.” His brother comes out holding onto the heel of his twin, and he earns the name Yaakov, which alludes to the heel he was pulling out in his attempt to get out first.
The twins as kids are pretty similar as babies (you know how it is with babies, they all look and act the same! They cry, dirty their diapers, and eat!) But when they get older, it becomes painfully obvious that these fellas couldn’t be farther apart. One spends his time learning in the tents, and one goes of hunting and robbing people in a way that would only make Ted Nugent proud. On the day they turn thirteen, Avraham dies right before his grandson, Eisov has his debut as All-Mesopotamian Bad Guy, as he spends his Bar Mitzvah committing all three of the Big Three sins, Adultery, Idolatry, and Homicide.
Arriving home from a day of high crimes, Eisov is famished and finds Yaakov cooking a lentil dish for his fathers (mourners are supposed to eat round things to remember that life is a cycle, and although they are in a down right now, things will turn up again). Eisov sells his birthright to his brother for a bowl of beans that was poured into his mouth and some bread, thus showing that he has zero appreciation for the finer things in life such as a fork and spirituality (the birthright is primarily a spiritual function as it designated who was supposed to serve in the Temple).
Then there is a famine in the Land of Israel and Yitzchak and his wife must go to Gerar to live amongst the Pilishtim, where food is abundant. Using a trick he learned from his father, Yitzchak tells his wife Rivka to tell everyone that she is his sister, to avoid getting killed by someone trying to steal his wife. When Avimelech, the King of Gerar finds out that they are actually married, he scolds Yitzchak, saying that one of the nation (himself) almost took Rivka as a wife, and then asks them to leave town. They pack up and move to the neighboring valley, where they successfully dig up some wells that Avraham’s servants dug when Avraham was there. There are a number of fights between the local servants and Yitzchak’s servants over the wells, until finally they come to an agreement regarding one of the wells on which they made a treaty, and it was named Be’er Sheva.
Yitzchak has enormous agricultural success producing 100 times the amount his fields were assessed to produce, and eventually realizing that Yitzchak obviously has G-d on his side, comes and makes a treaty with Yitzchak.
There has been a longstanding difference between Yitzchak and his wife, Rivka. Yitzchak displays more affection toward Eisov, hoping that the extra love showered on him will turn him around, while Rivka knows that Eisov is a no-goodnik, whose not coming back so fast and she loves Yaakov more. As Yitzchak is getting older, he decides that he must bless his children before he dies. Yitzchak decides that he should give the bulk of the blessings to Eisov hoping that success will breed success. But Rivka seeing her son with the deeper understanding that women possess, understands that Eisov will take the powers and use them for the other sides and she sets up a plan to circumvent the situation in a way that Yaakov will get the blessings. (It is interesting to note that both Avraham and his son Yitzchak had a son who was wicked, and each times their wives were the ones who realized how harmful they were, and took the necessary steps to ensure that the good children got whatever they needed.)
Yitzchak calls Eisov and tells him to bring him a good meal so that he can bless him out of appreciation. Rivka sees the opportunity and tells Yaakov to bring her two young kids (the goat kind) and she makes them into a dish she knows her husband loves. She then puts some of the goat skins on Yaakov’s smooth hands and neck so that they should feel like Eisov’s hairy ones. Yaakov brings the food into his father who asks him who he is. Yaakov, understanding the importance of his getting these blessing, needs to twist the truth a bit, and claims to be Eisov. His father unsure beckons him close to feel him, and feeling the skins thinks it is Eisov, and announces “The hands are the hands of Eisov, but the voice is the voice of Yaakov!” (This hints to the powers of the respective nations. Edom the progeny of Eisov, has their power in their hands, their physical strength, while the Jewish people, the offspring of Yaakov, has their power in their mouths, through prayer and Torah study!) Yitzchak then continues to give Yaakov all the blessings.
Soon after Eisov comes to his father with the meal he prepared for him, but when he arrives it becomes immediately clear that he has been tricked and that the blessing have already been given away. Eisov cries to his father, “have you left me at least one blessing?” Yitzchak tells him that he really gave all the good blessings to Yaakov, but he gives one blessing to Eisov, that his land should be fertile, that he shall live by his sword, and that although he will serve his brother, when his brother does the wrong things, Eisov will throw off his yoke, and dominate his brother.
Eisov furious that his brother stole his blessings begins to plan for the day his father will die so that he can kill his brother. Rivka realizing the danger facing her favored son, sends him off to the land she came from to get away from his murderous brother, and to get married with someone from her family. The parsha ends by telling us hoe Eisov seeing how much his parents dislike the local Canaanite women, marries himself a non-Canaanite woman, the daughter of Yishmael. Of course he keeps the Canaanite women, marrying a different wife was just a PR ploy to get parental approval.
Quote of the Week: A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds. – Francis Bacon
Random Fact of the Week: The largest private sector employer in Africa is Coca Cola!
Funny Line of the week: I went into a clothes store and a lady came up to me and said, “If you need anything, I’m Jill”. I’ve never met anyone with a conditional identity before.
Have a Splendid Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham