​​​Look Up!

On Monday night Caron alerted me to look up to the sky. We stepped outside; it was a crisp and lovely autumnal evening with a clear sky punctuated with stars. We looked up at precisely 7pm – and there it was moving rapidly across the firmament; the ISS, International space station tracking across Australia. And for a few minutes we stood transfixed. Our thoughts were far from our ailing planet, mesmerised by this space lab, bright as a shooting star, magical as a transcendent moment.

I thought of those six international space travellers moving at a speed of some 15km per second, orbiting earth about every 90 minutes. That means some 16 sunrises and sunset every 24 hours; a lot of praying if you’re an observant Jew! What an exhausting record of Schacharit, Mincha, Maariv… but then what an atmosphere!

I thought of those astronauts, wondering if they had left earth before it was visited by the Corona Virus (CV). I wondered about their perspective of an earth practically in shut-down. In some ways it would have ironically been a far healthier world, Mumbai and Beijing clearly visible, empty streets but better air. A stark reminder that even after the CV crisis passes we will still have another crisis to face: the environmental one, the climate challenge. To adapt the tone of the Psalmist – oh if only we understood that this is an opportunity to change the world (our physical and moral environment) for the better, that we don’t have to revert to our old ways of living and being: This is a chance to replace conspicuous consumerism with conspicuous compassion, to substitute “we” for “me”, to recognize our global interconnectedness rather than our internecine preoccupation.

As people of faith and history, we believe in the spiritual purpose behind all that happens. Not the arrogant and primitive reductionism of those who claim that the CV is a punishment from God for same-sex relationships or non-observance of the Shabbat or as one conservative pastor in the U.S.A put it the spread of the virus is punishment for the Jews for opposing Jesus. (Well that does beat the conspiracy theory that the Jews and/or Mossad are the source of the virus).

I don’t know God’s purpose but I do know that this crisis is a cause for a pause. A pause to reflect on our vulnerability and mortality; a cessation to contemplate on our convictions.

Even if you have problems with believing in God, you surely can’t have a problem with acknowledging that this tiny virus has punctured our hubris. It’s a sharp reminder that with all our technological prowess we aren’t in control of everything, that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet 1:5).

It’s an idea that is powerfully articulated in Psalm 91. Over the Yom Tov on Pesach and on Shabbat I have been especially drawn to this Psalm because of its poignant meditation on the tender protection of God and the fearful frailty of our lives. There are lines that speak to us today with a breathtaking relevance: “You need not fear terror by night…not the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the plague that ravages at noon”. It does express the hope that even if ten thousand are falling nearby, “He will command His angels to guard you” so no plague will come near your home…” Even as we know that faith doesn’t insulate you against CV, it should strengthen you not to fear but to be bold to do His work. In fact the Talmud (Shavuot 15b) calls this hymn the “Song of plagues”.

As one contemporary Rabbi expresses it “I don’t think God caused the coronavirus, but I see God’s work everywhere… In every single person who makes the decision to love their neighbour as themselves, in every person who’s staying home even though it’s not convenient, in every doctor and nurse and health worker who are putting themselves at risk, in every grocery store worker”.

There’s always a danger at moments of crisis that driven by fear, loss and a touch of paranoia that we will become more insular, more hateful, less giving. This is already evident in the rise of anti-Semitism and racism across the internet. It’s sadly manifest in some of the ugly behaviour in the Jewish community be it in Israel or locally.

This is not the occasion for vengeance or pettiness. This is a time to look up and not crawl down. This is the time to cultivate a gentler, nobler inwardness and promote a kinder, warmer outwardness. Like those reaching out to their lonely or needy neighbours or contributing to charities that really need support even though they’re hurting themselves.

This week I was blown away by one man who looked up: Dr Abed Zahalka, a Physician at the ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak’s Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Centre, one of the country’s coronavirus hotspots. The doctor, who has worked in the intensive care unit for many years, brought in a Sefer Torah for those in the Corona ward since he realized it would help make them stronger and help in their recovery. There’s a striking picture of Dr Abed in full protective gear bringing the Torah wrapped in a tallit for the patients. Dr Abed Zahalka is an Arab doctor from the northern Arab town of Kfar Qara…

As I reflected on this story, I imagined God (Kivyachol) looking down from his eternal space station and smiling, laughing and saying – “You have triumphed my children; this is how you will defeat the little Amalek, this is how you will vanquish the conceited coronavirus!”

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Ralph

About the Author
Rabbi Genende recently retired as the Senior Rabbi of Melbourne’s premier Caulfield Shule and took up the position of Senior Rabbi and Manager to Jewish Care Victoria, Melbourne’s largest Jewish organisation. He was a senior Reserve Chaplain in the South African Defence Force and is now Principal Rabbi to the Australian Defence Force, Member of the Religious Advisory Council to the Minister of Defence (RACS), board member of AIJAC (Australian Israel Jewish Affairs Council) and member of the Premier's Mulitifaith Advisory Group. He was President of JCMA (Jewish Christian Muslim Association) and a long time executive member of the Rabbinical Association of Victoria. He also oversees Yad BeYad a premarital relationship program, is a member of Swinburne University’s Research Ethics Committee and of the DHHS ,Department of Health Ethics Committee and sits on the Glen Eira City Council’s Committee responsible for its Reconciliation Action Plan for recognition and integration of our first peoples. Ralph has a passion for social justice and creating bridges between different cultures and faiths. For him the purpose of religion is to create a better society for all people and to engage with the critical issues facing Australian society. The role of the rabbi is, in his words, to challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged. In 2018 Rabbi Genende was awarded an OAM for his services to multi-faith relations, and to the Jewish community of Victoria. Rabbi Genende is a trained counsellor with a Masters degree from Auckland University. He is married to Caron, a psychologist, and they have three children and two grandchildren.