How can I help?

Our Torah Portion “Noach” reports twice on the downfall of humanity in the eyes of God. In the response to the first, God sends the waters of the flood, which erases all life on earth and God’s answer to the second, the building of the Tower of Bavel, is the dispersion of all humanity to all corners of the earth and the diffusion of language. Both are radical answers to human weakness.

Only with Abraham and later with Moses and the Israelites God opens a different path, away from destruction and punishment, towards a process of learning and self-improvement. God offers help and guidance in form of the Torah and all subsequent teachings of our tradition. Moreover, God becomes a role model for us when looking at each other. Instead of searching for flaws and shortcomings and how we can castigate our neighbour, we should ask the question:

How can I help? How can we make things better?

Shabbat Shalom – Rabbi Schell


A first thought for 5780 – Shabbat Shuvah

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat that falls between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Our tradition teaches that the gates of repentance are always open, and we are constantly reminded that it is never too late to change one’s ways and start anew. The haftarah for this Shabbat begins, „Shuvah Yisrael…“ (Return, O Israel…). (Hosea 14:2)

That idea of returning, or turning to a different path, permeates the season. What’s significant, perhaps, is not that we are repeatedly given  opportunities to change, but that we need them. None of us is perfect,  there’s always room for improvement. What this Shabbat and Yom Kippur reminds us is that not only can we always return, but also forces us to ask ourselves why we aren’t starting right now. If it’s never too late to begin, it’s also never too early to start.

In my sermon on Rosh HaShanah, I shared with you my thoughts on having hope and feeling gratitude, especially in moments that are difficult for us. Yom Kippur with its laws and regulations to fast and “atone“ is too often understood as a burden, but actually, Yom Kippur is a happy day, reassuring us that the above mentioned change is possible and that God is with us every single moment of our lives. God is stretching out God‘s hand on Yom Kippur, awaiting us at the open gates.

May you all be sealed in the book of life, rewarded for your honesty towards yourself and God. May you gain strength from Yom Kippur to master the tasks that await you in the coming year. May you feel God’s Presence within you always, and never lose faith and trust in God and God‘s people.

Gmar chatima tova!

—Rabbi Adrian M Schell


A final thought for 5779

For the last Shabbat in 5779, our Torah comes with one of the readings I love most in the entire year. In parashat Nitzavim we find the following directive: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life.”

But, what does it mean to choose life? It’s not as if we need to be told to live.  Rather, God is telling us that by choosing to follow God’s ways, we are choosing a good life. A blessed life. But this brings us to the age-old question “Why do the wicked prosper?” Why do we see evil people enjoying success in this world while good people struggle?

One of the classic answers is that while evil people may seem to be living it up in this world, they will suffer in the next, while the righteous will receive their reward in the world to come. Earthly pleasures are finite, but spiritual pleasures are infinite. The problem with this answer is that many of us haven’t got the patience to wait for the world to come and see if this is really true. Our struggles are now, and we want relief now.

But maybe the answer isn’t some logical discourse, but a shift in perspective.  A wonderful teaching by our sages says: “Good life is defined not by what you get, but by what you give.” When you look at life this way, the question disappears. It becomes almost irrelevant. No matter how little I have, there is always something I can do—some way I can reach out. By the same token, a life defined by how much you get can never satisfy. No matter how much you have, you always want more and more.

In order to be able to “choose life,” we need to be able to see it—to recognise it as life. This is what the Torah’s command gives us. It’s not really a directive. The point isn’t to tell us what to do, but to show us—to help us hold on to the perspective, to help us see how much more there is to life than we often see at the first moment.

For this Shabbat and these High Holy Days, it is my hope that we will find ways to see so that we can choose the right path for us, our families and society.

Shabbat Shalom and a good start into the New Year

Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Rabbi Shuchat)


Indifference to our world is intolerable, unethical and it breaches our morality


In this week’s column I’d like to share with you an excerpt from my sermon I delivered last Friday. The sermon was about the powerful dictum of Parashat KiTeitzei, wich asks us not to remain indifferent — “Lo tuchal le’hitalem“.

Lo tuchal le’hitalem – you shall not remain indifferent – it is an in-your-face moral and ethical requirement, taking us further into our humanity, reminding us that however practical Judaism is, however much a religion of doing, the doing is based on our shared humanity, our striving to reach a fuller and richer knowledge of our Source. Judaism is not only about what one does and doesn’t do. It is more than what       rituals one keeps, or at what time one separates Shabbat from the rest of the week. It isn’t lived only on a spiritual plane nor exclusively in the material world but it is rooted in the ethical and the moral.

Of course, I mention this imperative of the Torah in the light of the political discussions we have in South Africa currently. The despicable acts towards women, the xenophobic attacks, the general outlook on the value of a human life that seems to become less and less of value to many – all this needs our attention.  We cannot pretend not to see what is happening. We cannot hide ourselves or be indifferent to our surroundings, however inconvenient it might be and we have to respond to them – because it is a essentially Jewish requirement.

Lo tuchal lehitalem- you shall not hide yourself; you shall not be indifferent.  We are not permitted to look the other way, to continue with our lives as routinely as before. Hiding the truth from ourselves and not acting to help others is a direct prohibition..

May we all, in the final days of this current Jewish year find ways to bring holiness into this—our—world, by stepping out of our comfort zone and into actions of meaning.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Adrian M Schell 


Parashat Re’eh: Justice, Justice shall you pursue!


The pursuit of justice is one of the most frequently repeated concerns, and not only of the Torah, but of Jewish tradition. The teaching is to pursue justice in dealing with social, political, and international matters.  In addition, Jewish tradition teaches, “speak up for those who are silent, for the rights of the unfortunate. Speak out, judge justly, champion the poor and the needy.”

Several commentators ask the question: Why does Moses repeat the word Tzedek, or “justice,” in his statement: “justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that Adonai your God is giving you?” – Pointing out that the commandment could stand without the repetition since the Torah does not often repeat words, interpreters offer a number of explanations: Some say that by repeating the word Tzedek Moses underscores the importance of pursuing justice as a means of community survival. Others argue that the term is repeated to convey the idea that the pursuit of justice is not only the responsibility of government, of judges within the society, but also an imperative for each individual.  This may have been what Rabbi Acha meant when he quoted Rabbi Tanchum, who said, “though a person may be a scholar of Torah and a teacher of greater renown, careful in observing all the ritual commandments, if such a person is able to protest wrongdoing neglects to do so, he is to be considered cursed.” Or in the words of Rabbi Chijah: “if a person is neither a scholar, nor a teacher, nor known for observing all the ritual commandments, but stays up to protest against evil, such a person is called a blessing.”

For rabbinic interpreters the pursuit of justice in society was paramount.

Correcting the evils perpetrated by human beings was considered the highest ethical priority.  Moses’ repetition of “justice, justice” was understood to mean: “don’t be satisfied with observing wrongdoing. Stand up and protest against it!” Obviously, the pursuit of justice is critical and of central concern for any society.  Within the Bible and embedded within rabbinic commentary, the
accomplishment of justice is a requisite for truth in peace.  We are commanded to pursue justice because no human community can survive without it.

– Rabbi Adrian M Schell 

(Source: Fields, Parashat Re’eh)