The Jewish people are in a state of severe trauma. It is a trauma that began on Shabbat, seventh of October 2023, Simchat Torah 5784. I arrived at shul in a joyous mood for the Shemini Atzeret service (in the diaspora Simchat Torah is one day later than Israel), only to be informed by the CSO protector that there was a terror attack in progress in the south of Israel. At that stage, the details were vague and the full extent of the horrific pogrom was not yet known. When I returned for Mincha later that day, the protector told me that some twenty one Israeli settlements were in the hands of Hamas terrorists, as well as some army bases and police stations. It was then that I realised that a completely different attack had occurred, both in quality and quantity. In the days that followed, information began to trickle out: over a thousand people murdered, hundreds taken hostage and entire communities destroyed. Then we learned that the sick and twisted Hamas thugs had filmed their atrocities. In my naivety, I thought that, for once, the world would take pity on Israel and come to her defence. No person in their right mind would side with such barbarism and cruelty.  Unfortunately, I was completely mistaken. Perhaps this is how Jews felt after Kristallnacht in November 1938. They must have thought, “Surely the world will now see the true evil of the Nazis and come to our aid!” Alas, it was not to be.

The terror attack of the seventh of October and the resultant war in Gaza has unleashed a torrent of hatred against the State of Israel and the Jewish people. There have been massive and often violent anti-Israel demonstrations in many major cities. Jewish students at American universities, including top Ivy League institutions, have been threatened with violence. Media outlets have swallowed Palestinian propaganda and ganged up against the Jewish State. The Secretary General of the United Nations said that while the Hamas attack was awful, “it did not happen in a vacuum”, thereby becoming an apologist for terror. Responding to the question, “Does a call for genocide against Jews violate your school’s code of conduct?” at a congressional hearing in December, three major university presidents answered that, “it depends on the context.” If this flood of anti-Semitism were not enough, here in South Africa, the ANC hosted Hamas leaders, sent the minister of international relations to Tehran and recently laid a claim of genocide against the State of Israel at the International Court of Justice at the Hague. Add to all of this the fact that there are still over a hundred hostages in Gaza and there are IDF soldiers being killed and maimed daily in a war that is taking place on several fronts. Just this week, twenty one reservists were killed. And let’s not forget the incessant rockets that rain down on Israel from the Gaza Strip. 

I am feeling rather battered by all of this and the endless news cycle, which is mostly negative, does not help. I find myself in a constant state of anxiety as I think of the plight of the hostages and of the safety of our own extended family in Israel, several of whom were called for duty on the seventh of October. Lee’s first cousin’s son was one of those called up. His wife was expecting their fifth child. I cannot imagine how she must have felt knowing her husband was in a war zone. Thankfully, his unit was recently recalled from the front and – baruch Hashem – he was home for the birth of his daughter! I also feel more self-conscious when in public and I try to avoid interactions with Muslims. This is probably unreasonable, but I am just not in the mood for any confrontations. My nerves are frayed and I am feeling very delicate.

And yet, I have been inspired, encouraged and invigorated by the bravery of the IDF soldiers; the faith and courage of regular Israelis and the incredible unity of the Jewish people at this difficult time. Of the many inspirational people who have emerged at this time, Rabbi Doron (Laurence) and Shelley Perez stand out as true heroes. Rabbi Perez was raised in Johannesburg and Shelley in Cape Town. They were a highly respected rabbinical couple in Johannesburg for many years. They had a close connection to our shul and were frequent visitors to CWHC until they made Aliyah in 2014, when Rabbi Perez took up the position of Executive Chairman of World Mizrachi. On 7 October, two of the Perez’s sons, Yonatan and Daniel, raced to the south to fight the terrorists. Yonatan, who was engaged to be married, was injured, and Daniel was taken hostage. In an act of bravery and faith, the Perez family decided to continue with Yonatan’s wedding, notwithstanding the predicament of Daniel, who is still missing in action. I cannot begin to imagine the pain and trauma of Daniel’s parents, siblings and extended family. Each day must be a living nightmare. And yet Rabbi Perez continues to inspire with his words of Torah and encouragement.

I would like to share an incredible teaching from this week’s parsha that I head from Rabbi Perez several years ago. In the Song of the Sea, the Israelites said (Shmot 15:14-15), “Nations heard, they were agitated; trembling has gripped the inhabitants of Philistia. Then the chieftains of Edom were alarmed; trembling gripped the powerful leaders of Moab; all the inhabitants of Canaan have dissipated.” Rabbi Perez cited the Vilna Gaon on the prophet Habakkuk (3:14 in Aderet Eliyahu). The Vilna Gaon explains that the Philistines, the Edomites and the Moabites are three enemies of the Jewish people – Moab to the east, Edom to the south and the Philistines to the west. Moab is the “father of impurity” through whom the Israelites were impurified. This a reference to the scheme of sending their womenfolk to have illicit relations with the Jewish men (Bamidbar 25). Moab represent those who hate the Jewish religion and attempt to alienate Jews from God through immoral behaviour and other means. The Greeks would fall into this category. This is religious anti-Semitism, the type practised by Christians for centuries. Edom, the nation that descended from Esau, were fixated on the destruction of Jews. This would include Amalek (Esau’s grandson), Haman, the Romans and the Nazis. It is not enough for them to destroy the Jewish religion. They seek the destruction of every Jew. This is racial anti-Semitism. And then there were the Philistines. Of them, the Vilna Gaon writes, “They oppressed Israel greatly and did not allow them to have sovereignty or independent rule.” The Philistines were opposed to Jewish nationalism and statehood. They could tolerate a Jew, even a religious Jew, provided he did not have a homeland. This is the anti-Semitism of the Muslim world. Jews lived in Islamic countries for many generations and relations between the two groups were largely peaceful, provided the Jews accepted their role as second-class citizens (“dhimmi”). However, when the State of Israel was proclaimed, the Arab countries rose up against their Jewish citizens, killing them and sending them into exile. The Muslim world simply cannot tolerate the existence of a Jewish state and that is what is at the heart of this conflict. Unfortunately, the other types of anti-Semites have grabbed the opportunity to crawl out of their holes and join in the hate-fest. This insightful teaching of the Vilna Gaon allows us to understand our enemies and respond accordingly.

By God’s grace, we now have a homeland and we are not giving it up! May Hashem watch over our soldiers and may He return Daniel Shimon ben Sharon speedily to his family!

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom!  

Rabbi Liebenberg.

Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for the parsha:

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