It was dark, smoky and hazy over Melbourne. We experienced the worst air quality in the world. Our beautiful, liveable city was suddenly a shadow of itself. A week ago I was in Auckland on a bright and clear summer’s day. Around midday an eerie orange glaze coated the sky; it was followed by a dark cloud which plunged the city into darkness. Aucklanders panicked – they called the police and emergency services. A week earlier dark, smoky clouds whipped over the South Island. There were reports of smoke clouds drifting as far as South America. Across the world and from satellite pictures it seemed all of Australia was on fire.
In truth, the bushfires, huge relentless and outrageous as they are, are only burning part of our country. Large enough to cause much pain, loss, destruction and disruption. Our discomfort in cities like Melbourne and Sydney pales beside the loss of life, animals and property that our fellow Australians are suffering. The hazy air is however emblematic of the pall of sadness and dismay hovering over Australians. These are unprecedented days of fire and darkness. Days that have been described as biblical in their proportion and portent. And it is the biblical that resonates for me as we begin to read the second book of the Tora, Shemot or Exodus this week. Switching on the lights in the early afternoon, it felt like day had become night. I recalled the plague of darkness: “There will be darkness over the land of Egypt. It will be tangible… There was total darkness over the entire land of Egypt….’’ (Exodus 10;21-23). Comments Rashi on the palpable quality of the blackness: “The darkness turned day into night…it was a darkness of gloom.”
These are unprecedented days of fire and destruction. As in the plagues the environment is being ravaged, our landscape blighted and the human pain is awful. We are a country in crisis, the fearful forces of nature exacerbated by our own reckless and unthinking ways, our own profligate disregard for our environment. It seems that Planet Earth itself is reacting violently to our abuse of its integrity. Across the world extreme weather patterns are causing suffering to millions. The words of William Wordsworth are plangent in their relevance: “The world is too much with us…Getting and spending we lay waste our powers; -Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away…”
Last week a friend in Israel commiserating about the bush fires pointed out the irony that while we were fighting fires, they were battling floods. It seemed that the awesome “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer of Yom Kippur had come back to haunt us: “Who by fire, who by water….”
Crises like this cause so much grief and often we feel paralysed, immobilised by their enormity. We are like the Egyptians in their blackout: “Nobody could see their fellow, nor could anyone rise from their place” (Ibid:23). We also know that the damage to the human condition is often even greater than the destruction of property and environment.
At times like this it is important to focus not on the destruction but on our determination – our resilience as human beings to respond to crises with caring and confidence in the future. This is a trait that we Jews have (sadly) finely developed through centuries of hardships. Maimonides who admired Aristotle would surely have approved of his assertion that “It is in our darkest moments we must focus to see the light.”
The heroism of our volunteer firefighters is only matched by the generosity of Australians across this country. The Jewish community is doing its part; Jewish philanthropists have made substantial donations, Jewish individuals are enacting great initiatives and fund-raisers. Our Shule member, David Smorgon is spearheading an impressive committee and community-wide appeal through the JCCV. The idea is that everybody contributes according to their ability. See the link to appeal flyer that follows and please respond as best as you can.
Moti Ben Shabbat is an Israeli who gave his life to rescue a family caught up in floods in Israel. President Rivlin sent a condolence letter to the Ben Shabbat family:
“Dear brave Ben Shabbat family”, the president wrote. “Moti risked his life to save a family whose car was stuck in the rising tides. In those seconds, when action comes before thought, a person’s true character is seen. His bravery, his refusal to be a bystander, his courage, touched all our hearts and are examples of humanity and mutual responsibility of the highest order.”
Rivlin’s words are pertinent not only to Moti but indeed to the fire-fighters, water bombing pilots, police, ADF, ambulance, emergency workers and countless volunteers across Australia.
It’s easy at times of crisis to despair and to question, as a young pregnant woman did to me just yesterday: “Is it worth bringing a child into a world like this?” I replied to her that this was exactly the thought of Moshe’s parents when they were living through the darkness and slavery of Egypt. According to the Midrash it was their daughter, Miriam who counselled them to have faith in the future. And so Moshe was born, a man who illuminated the world with his message of hope and compassion, his belief in the future.
During the plague of darkness “all of the people of Israel had light in their dwellings.” This is how you fight darkness, this is how you face crisis: you create light in your hearts and your homes. A light heart can help ease a heavy world.