I hope that you are having a great day and looking forward to a superb Shabbat ahead. The big news, of course, is the resignation of ex-President Zuma last night (I write this on Thursday morning) and our transition to Acting President (and we all assume our next President) Ramaphosa. This is great for South Africa and a sign for many of us that the future is brighter in this country today than it was yesterday. In considering the words that I wish to share on this topic, I think about the tricky and sensitive issues of Rabbis and politics. On the one hand, Rabbis are usually not trained or employed as political commentators, and should be cautious of using their platform as such simply because they have a platform. Chief Rabbi Goldstein once expressed this as “a Rabbi should only say things that only a Rabbi can say,” and I consider this every time I am to give a message. “Is what I am about to say or write an authentic expression of Torah and Jewish tradition?” I have shared in the past that when I give a shiur on one topic or another, and someone asks me, “What do you think?” My initial response is often “Why is that relevant?” By this I don’t mean that we don’t, each and every one of us, have an obligation to study, understand, process and personalise the Torah that we learn, of course we do, and of course we should ask, “What does this mean to me?” However, Sam Thurgood may think or believe many foolish or mundane things that Rabbi Sam Thurgood has no business saying. In contrast to this, a Rabbi does indeed have an obligation to be a voice of justice, morality, holiness and compassion, as a custodian of Hashem’s Torah.
So where does this place us in today’s politics in South Africa? Although Chief Rabbi Goldstein composed a new version of the prayer for the President of South Africa (which was a veiled call for President Zuma to resign) to be said each Shabbat – and emailed the Rabbis this morning to advise returning to the regular prayer – I myself never made a habit of saying this prayer. My personal beliefs are that Mr Zuma was indeed unworthy to lead South Africa – but is that what the prayer for the government is about? It was instituted centuries ago based on the injunction of the Yirmiyahu/Jeremiah 29:7: “And seek the peace of the city where I have exiled you and pray for it to the Lord, for in its peace you shall have peace.” This was always understood to mean that we should pray for the well-being of the government and country. So I always ask myself the question – was Mr Zuma worse than the Babylonians? Worse than the Romans and Byzantines and Persians and Moors and medieval kings and Russian Czars? I think not. On the other hand, today we live in a democracy, and have the right to demand the leadership which we choose; but on the third hand, as the level of toxicity in political debate rises around the world, I can easily imagine the prayer for the government being rewritten in each community as a leader they dislike comes in. Finally, on the fourth hand, it relates to the issues of citizenship and nationality. To what extent are we proudly South African, committed to the interests and well-being of the country, making our voices heard nationally on issues that concern us and playing the full role of citizens – and to what extent are we guests in the diaspora, here for now but not for good, doing what we can until we return to Israel, the true country of our citizenship?
The Torah teaches us that Moshe was criticised in that even when he saved Yitro’s daughters, he was identified as an Egyptian; and Yosef was praised in that even when he was blamed for wrongdoing, he was identified as a Hebrew. It seems to be that the Torah is teaching us not to get too attached to the land of our exile. Pray for her welfare and wellbeing, but remember that our true home always remains the land of Israel.
My 2 minute Parsha for Sidrat Teruma is called “The Right Message for the Right Person” and you can find it here.
Aviva, Shalva, Tzuriya, Azriel and I wish you a Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Sam Thurgood