Ralph Genende
Ralph Genende

Good Yontif Pontiff!

Just last week the astronauts on the International Space Station reflected on the spiritual significance of their experience. Speaking to Pope Francis via video call they spoke of seeing planet earth “from the eyes of God”. Randy Bresnick one of the Americans on board said that what gave him the greatest joy in space was “to be able to look outside and see God’s creation maybe a little bit from His perspective. People cannot come up here and see the indescribable beauty of our earth and not to be touched in their souls… There’s no borders, there’s no conflict; it’s just peaceful”. He could just as well have said this is a great day, Francis; in fact, “Good Yontif Pontiff”!

It got me thinking of how perspective refreshes the mind and cleanses the soul. How we need a little distance sometimes to appreciate the gift of life and living, the things we take so for granted. We often fail to recognize the good fortune of good health, the strength we take from our loved ones, the support we gain from our friends, the power we draw from our community.

Collectively we show so little gratitude for the wonder of this delicate world God has so generously shared with us. The Pope responded to Bresnick by saying that he had grasped “that the earth is too fragile and it passes in a moment. It is a very fragile thing, the atmosphere is so thin, so capable of doing harm, of destroying itself”.  This earth that God has given us, that everyday in our morning tefillot we acknowledge saying “How many are your marvels and actions oh God, all created with great wisdom”; this earth that we are poisoning and treating with such cavalier disregard. In fact you can’t say the morning “Shema” before you’ve acknowledged that God renews creation every day illuminating the world for us… In other words you shouldn’t start the day without recognising the natural world and by implication without realising that you need to begin your day with an environmental awareness; that climate change isn’t just a global issue, it’s a moral challenge. There’s a thin line between moral and natural ecology. Protecting our environment is a moral imperative; remember the instructions to Adam “I’m giving you a world to work it and protect it”. (Genesis 2:15)

Taking responsibility is what it’s all about; Adam failed to take responsibility for his actions (blaming Eve when confronted by God for his ineptitude). Noah failed to take responsibility for his society; he literally didn’t succeed in bringing them on board. Abraham is our success story because he didn’t shirk from responsibility. He stood up for the dissolute and the disappointed, he was a champion for the underdog and the stranger. He wouldn’t have tolerated leaving people stranded on a remote island. He would have ensured all refugees be treated with dignity and respect irrespective of the political implications.

And he planted a tree, an “eshel” tree in Beersheba and then proclaimed “the name of Hashem God of the universe”, (Ibid 21:33) source of all the natural world. Abraham would also surely have rejoiced in seeing Beersheba celebrate the Light Brigade this past week and the way in which it contributed to the return of his people to the land promised to him and his ancestors!

Sergey Ryazanskiy one of two Russians on the space station said he had decided to become a cosmonaut because his grandfather was one of the chief engineers who built Sputnik, the first artificial satellite which the Soviet Union sent into orbit in 1957. Sounding positively Jewish, the Pope told him: “Don’t forget roots.. roots are our hope and our strength”. From the time of Abraham and Sarah roots/shmoots have always mattered to us. Like a distant searchlight the past beams into the present and illuminates our future. We constantly draw on the strength and inspiration of our charismatic ancestors. The past is also what gives perspective; it gives us the capacity to stand back peruse the present and plan for the future. It helps us appreciate this wondrous blue planet that God has given us. It prompts us to sing out aloud:

“How great are your works, oh Lord

You made them all in wisdom

The earth is full of your creations”

(Psalm 104)

About the Author
Born in Zimbabwe, raised in South Africa, Rabbi Ralph Genende is a well-known and popular Modern Orthodox Rabbi. Ralph was Senior Rabbi to the Auckland, New Zealand Jewish community for ten years. He then became College Rabbi at Mount Scopus College, member of its Executive Team and Rabbi of Beit Aharon congregation. Currently Rabbi Genende is Senior Rabbi of Caulfield Hebrew Congregation, one of Melbourne’s largest congregations. 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 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 – Eyal (who is married to Carly), Daniella and Yonatan and a grandson Ezra.