Be a Redwood Jew – Kol Nidre 5780, 2019

So what’s the most pressing question today? What’s the most urgent, compelling question? I know that for me there is one and only one: what does it mean to be human in an age of bewilderment. If I phrased it more narrowly it would be: What does it mean to be Jewish in an age of such anxiety?

We are living through one of the most exciting epochs but we’re also living through one of the most confusing of eras. It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times. But somehow most of the time it feels like the worst of the times…

Even as we enjoy unprecedented levels of comfort, security and longevity in the West, we are more anxious than ever before, consuming more antidepressants, abusing more drugs and alcohol and eating ourselves into an obesity epidemic…

Being Jewish at this cusp of 5780 doesn’t feel any less worrying. Not only is the virus of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism spreading its toxicity from Berlin to Melbourne, (that terrible and haunting image of a Jewish child in Melbourne being forced to kiss the feet of his tormentor) But our young are dissociating from the community at an alarming rate.

My generation in particular are worried sick about the future of Judaism for our community and wonder what it will look like for our children and grandchildren. We feel like we’re living the adage: the past, present and future walked into a bar – it was tense.

So why does the world at this point seem so dark, why now are we so locked into a winter of stress and angst?

I would lay there is one word, only one word for it and it’s a C word. No, I’m not talking about the dreadful spread of cancer, and don’t worry I’m not talking about climate change either. But I am talking about change.

It’s a truism that the only constant today is change. Too much change in too short a time.

The world is simply unrecognisable today. In the past 25 years we’ve experienced exponential change at a relentless place. Sometimes I find it hard to believe I was born B. C – before computers, before cell phones and selfies.

We aren’t experiencing future shock, but rather present shock; a contemporary tectonic shift. As one example we haven’t even touched the surface of how AI, artificial intelligence is outpacing us. The human mind lost its edge back in 1997 when the supercomputer Deep Blue defeated the world Champion Grand Master Gary Kasparov. And since then AI has only dramatically evolved…

Change is scary, change is frightening, change is unsettling-especially when it’s dramatic, unexpected and relentless. Mary Shelley said “Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change”. King Solomon succinctly captured it in two words:

פחד פתאם

Sudden terror …that feeling of vulnerability to events not of our choosing; like a fish suddenly caught in a net…

So how do you face a future so fraught, what do we do when confronted by such millennial momentum?

Take dalet amot. Take four small steps:

First: Just stop – Circumstances may change in the blink of an eye, but people move best at a slower pace. In the unceasing, frantic race of our lives we need to sometimes press the Pause button.

Our competitive, sleepless society makes talking about tiredness and stress difficult and it can be risky in a work situation. After all, if everyone’s tired what make you so special? Yet we need to talk about slowing down, knowing our limits, leaving time for our closest relationships, taking control.

It’s an especially important message when there is so much anxiety and loneliness when many men especially but not exclusively are driven into depression, mental illness and suicide; good men like Danny Frawley. We need to ensure that men can find the words and the courage to express their sadness and sorrow, their pain and their bewilderment, to endow their pain with meaning.

The point of a pause is embodied in the observance of Shabbat, it’s energised by taking time every day to pray.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – take a Shabbus break. Even if you don’t observe Shabbat fully you can still adapt elements of it into your life. It’s not all or nothing but something. It clears the mind, it reminds you to breathe. Make your Friday nights not only family friendly, but also screen free. Switch off all devices, switch on all your faculties. Try out our fabulous Friday night services, come zone out even once a month at our Shabbat morning tefillah, bring your kids or grandchildren to our regular Shabbat program.

And yes, discover the diminishing ,if not lost, art of Tefillah. For those into meditation and yoga it can enhance your practise just as mindfulness can improve your prayer experience. Tefillah stops you in your tracks, no matter how busy you are it makes you pause – and that’s also why we should have an embargo on mobile phones in our shules at ALL times and not just Shabbat and Yom Tov.

Remember the sign outside a shule:

When you enter this shule, it may be possible that you hear the “call of God”.

However, it is unlikely that He will call you on your mobile

Thank you for turning off your phones.

If you want to talk to God, enter, choose a quiet place and talk to Him.

If you want to see Him sooner, send Him a text while driving

If the first step is to pause, the second is to focus. To focus is to gain perspective. There is so much gloom and doom around us. This may be the season of darkness but it is also one of light, a spring of hope for humanity. We are achieving so much, have ready access to an untold wealth of information; we are conquering previously unconquerable diseases, dramatically diminishing child mortality from 43% 200 years ago to 4.5% today. Since you had dinner yesterday, a miracle occurred: Some 130,000 people escaped poverty and that has happened every day for the past 20 years. Check out the book on factfulness if you think I exaggerate.

By nature, going all the back to the Ice Age when it was a survival mechanism, we are possessed by a negativity bias. We tend to focus on the bad and not the good. Perspective matters but most of our information is skewed, incorrect and fed by a 24 -7 cycle of disaster and devastation. It’s time to focus and lighten up. Judaism has always been about a forward focus rather than rear -view gazing. Yes we respect and even revere the past but we will not be held captive by it! This isn’t about optimism or pessimism but rather what’s been called possibilism . Rabbi Sacks calls it the difference between hope and optimism .If you believe the problems are so enormous you will also believe they are unresolvable .Optimism is the belief that things are going to get better. Hope is the belief that we can make things better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope is an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it does take courage and energy to hope.

The third step is ––Connect, only connect to your community, to your fellow human beings. It’s well known that the best antidote to depression in general (although not clinical depression)is connection, getting out there and doing something for others, escaping the prison of self through the liberation of others. And I’m talking about real connection – not FB but face to face, eye to eye, heart to heart and not hiding behind idealised instagrams and cute text messages. Saying sorry, one of the hallmarks of today should be upfront and personal.

We’re all such narcissists –how many conversations do you have where people don’t only talk about themselves? In 1968 Rabbi Jonathan Sacks met the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn. ‘While I was there, the Hasidim told me the following story. A man had written to the Rebbe in roughly these terms: “I am depressed. I am lonely. I feel that life is meaningless. I try to pray, but the words do not come. I keep mitzvoth but find no peace of mind. I need the Rebbe’s help”. The Rebbe sent a brilliant reply without using a single word. He simple circled the first word of every sentence and sent the letter back. The word in each case was “I”.’

And yet altruism is still so alive and potent a force –I am blown away by the number of people across our world working to lift others, I am moved by the people in Australia and especially in our tiny Jewish community reaching out to help those who need it most the Food Harvests and the Gandel and other Jewish Foundations, the Kogos, Beit Refael and our own Darchei Shalom soup kitchen. If you want to do something worthwhile, volunteer! I am gob-smacked by the young millennial Jews in our community showing initiative and energy from Caring Mums to C Care, from Chabad Youth to Koleinu, Launch Pad to Stand Up, our own ,Zusha to Zohar.

We lament the young Jews being alienated from our kehillah but there are so many who aren’t dissociating from community. They’re simply finding a new way to be involved, they are reimagining what it means to live in a community. Millennials may not choose to join one of the established Jewish communities or organisations, but they are forming their own ‘intentional communities, places they feel are less hierarchical, more inclusive, less denominational, more focused on social justice and Tikkun Olam, more intimate, less judgemental. That’s quite a challenge for us in the Orthodox community but one we can rise to. We need to get up, get smart – If you want to attract millennials you need to acknowledge their differences and create with them the best response. That’s how you connect. That’s exactly why we are building a community centre here at CHC not just a nicer shul but a place with a millennial hub and spaces for the young seekers and new age families.

And this leads to the fourth and final step – believe. Think Moshe –it’s the last day of his life and he knows it. What does he choose to do with this terrible burden, this unbearable knowledge? What would you do? He doesn’t ask for a last meal of schnitzel,a shot of single malt and manna, not even for a shtikel herring. He doesn’t slump into despair and surrender. Rather Vayeilech Moshe, he gets up and he goes, he gets out there to say goodbye, to farewell and inspire, to connect and to detach. It’s almost unimaginable –where does he find the strength? I would say he digs deep within for he is a man with a mission, a man with a meaning, a man with a purpose and destiny. If you have a sense of mission, a goal and a dream it energises you, it gets you going and it keeps you moving even when the odds are stacked against you. Find your mission, what energises you…

We all need something to believe in, even an atheist; one who has a why to live can live with almost any how said Nietzsche. This in turn inspired Victor Frankl in the darkest of places, Auschwitz, and helped him lead camp inmates to find a reason to survive. It seems faith sees the best in the dark (Kierkegaard). So this Yom Kippur I recommend you –try a bit of faith, it’s better than herring and it won’t kill you. And if you find faith in God too hard how about a little faith in your people and the wisdom of the ages in our Torah? We’ve been around for some 3,500 years and faced some terrifying times – our backs to the Egyptian army, our faces to the turbulent sea; we’ve experienced tectonic shifts and attempted extinctions and right here there are survivors of the Shoah, but Meer Zinen Doh were still here, we’re still standing, we’re still moving and in some ways we are stronger than ever. Just look at Israel- Medinat Yisrael Chai!

We are the Redwood trees of history, small in numbers, giant in stature. When you look at a redwood tree it seems motionless, and still redwoods are in constant motion moving upwards into space, constantly articulating themselves… (Richard Preston). So we the Jewish people are always aspiring, reaching beyond ourselves, articulating ourselves into history.

So how do you remain human in an age of bewilderment, stay Jewish in an age of anxiety? You pause, focus, believe, connect. You do it for yourself, your family, your community and those who are no longer with us. So let’s stand strong and sturdy this Yom Kippur, this 5780. Let’s look up and reach upwards, be as mighty and resilient as the ancient Redwoods for we, the Jewish people are the Redwoods of history, the messengers of the past, the carriers of the present, the emissaries of the future.

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.
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