Christchurch Attacks, COVID-19 - Community and Isolation
Updated: Mar 22
This article is the Rabbi's Derasha given on Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei 5780.
When the WJCC was the Only Orthodox Jewish Community Open on Shabbat.
We are in the interim between Purim and Pesach. Today we read the special Torah reading of Shabbat HaChodesh, the first month of Nissan, the month of Pesach.
In Purim, the catalyst for change was when all of the Jews got together – and Mordechai tells Esther “Go and gather all of the Jews”. Esther does so while dressing in sacks and leading the people in Tefilla for three days, which happened to be the first three days of Passover! Those three days inspired the reversal of the Jewish people’s fate, and set the stage for the celebration of Purim for generations.
Let’s go back in history 1500 years earlier, the moments before the Exodus from Egypt. God commands the People of Israel for this first time as a nation to sanctify the new month – Kiddush HaChodesh. This is the special Torah reading for this Shabbat’s Maftir portion. Israel are no longer a collection of families, but a gathering of a single nation who is on the brink of independence from slavery for the first time in 210 long years. The commandment is to sanctify each new Jewish month, starting from the month of redemption, Nissan, when the People of Israel will commemorate their birth as a nation for thousands of years to come.
After receiving that Mitzvah, Israel received the Mitzvoth of the Manna in the desert, and specifically its collection in the context of keeping Shabbat. Israel can collect the Manna for 6 days, and on the 6thday there is a double portion – one for 6th Day and the second for Shabbat. Until this very day we commemorate that significant Mitzvah by eating not one but two Challot each Shabbat meal. This Mitzvah was also given to the People of Israel as a nation, not as individuals.
Our Parasha of Vayakhel-Pekudei begins with that very same commandment, the Mitzvah of Shabbat. Shabbat is mentioned multiple times in the Torah, but for this first time is mentioned in the context of a mass gathering – Vayakhel, which literally means and he gathered. A congregation is called a “Kahal” and a community stems from the same Hebrew root word – “Kehilla”. Moshe gathers all of the People of Israel in order to reiterate the Mitzvah of Shabbat and then role out the Mitzvah of the actual building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Rabeinu Bachyei, a Medieval commentator from 1000 years ago, comments that when Moshe gathered the nation as a corrective action to Aharon’s gathering of the nation in time of crisis, where Aharon initiated and facilitated the building of the Golden Calf (albeit in order to stall the nation until Moshe came down from Mount Sinai, with good intention). There are gatherings that can lead to Kiddush Hashem, and gatherings that can lead to devastation. Rabeinu Bachyei continues by stating that Moshe commanded the laws of Shabbat that were relevant to the general public, and not just the higher concepts of Shabbat (Or the “Secrets” of Shabbat), during that gathering, specifically forbidding the lighting of fire on Shabbat.
Fire. It is human’s first ever invention, and arguably the biggest contributor to both life and death, all from one source. We light the Havdallah candle on Shabbat as a tribute to Adam Harishon’s (Adam from Genesis) first invention – the discovery of fire. Fire gives us light, warmth, the ability to cook and has changed human existence since its discovery. Fire has also consumed the lives of many, and with the invention of gun powder has been more devastating than ever before, since the Ottoman period and how much more so in today’s reality with guns, missiles, and other weapons. On Shabbat one must rest from developing the physical world, and the prototypical symbol of developing our world is the creation of fire, and that is why Moshe singles out not lighting fire on Shabbat as the representation for all creative work that is prohibited on Shabbat.
Last year fire was used to consume the lives of tens of Christchurch’s Muslim community. The same source that allows us to cook, function in the dark and give us warmth was used to murder. The tragedy was amplified by the fact that the murderer chose a time of mass gathering in the two Mosques in Christchurch to do so. It is eerie that our Parasha opens with both mass gathering and the prohibition of lighting fire on Shabbat. What happens when fire is used for destruction in the context of a Kahal and Kehilla?
To add to the eerie parallels, we are in a situation today, one year after the attacks, where the entire world is banned from mass gatherings. New Zealand just on Thursday decreed that maximum indoor gatherings are 100 individuals, which will have widespread implications for businesses, communities, events and all other institutions and places of gathering. The world is driven into isolation in light of the spread of COVID-19 and even New Zealand’s borders are closed to outsiders, leaving an entire country to be isolated in their homes in a now isolated country from the rest of the world.
How do we reconcile all of this a year after the Christchurch shootings? What can we learn to give us strength and wisdom moving forward? How does the one year since the attacks take on new meaning in light of the COVID-19 virus spreading and the isolation ripple effect worldwide?
Our world is changing, rapidly. In New Zealand, we are becoming more isolated with every passing day. The Parasha remind us of the importance of community, the importance of coming together and celebrating together, as one, and the importance of being part of something bigger than ourselves. Shabbat is a day when community comes together and when families come together and sit down around the Shabbat
table sharing stories, songs, food and a Shabbat atmosphere. It’s when we come together for Tefilla as a Kehilla every week. The attack on Christchurch used the Friday prayer sessions, when the Muslim community comes together in prayer, against them. The attacker used the concept of Vayakhel to cause destruction. In response to the attacks, we must create Kehilla to build and create, we must come together not just as a Jewish community but as a wider community as well, supporting each other, reaching out to one another, being a better neighbour, friend, school parent, volunteer and supporter both within our own Jewish community and outside of it.
COVID-19 protocols will surely become more prohibitive in the short term, forcing us into isolation. But even in isolation we can turn our sights to creating community. Classes and gatherings can be done virtually, communication today is relatively easy once one has access to the Internet and all social media platforms, and the world is really becoming much smaller, despite geographical distance. The one thing we cannot replace virtually is coming together on Shabbat – Vayakhel. That is why had a Minyan this past Shabbat. It may or may not be a sign to come, but it is that sense of belonging, of community and of getting strength from each other that bonds us and that we yearn for.
My blessing to our community is -
May Hashem give us the strength to continue to seek out community even in these isolating times, and give all of the decision makers in our community, in New Zealand and worldwide the wisdom and foresight to help bring us out of these challenging times, and do our part, our Hishtadlut, in order to help keep ourselves safe from the COVID-19 virus and its perils.