I’ve got about eight minutes in which to express to you my final Rosh Hashanah message at Caulfield Shule. It reminds me of when George Bernard Shaw was invited to give a talk about English literature. “How long do I have?”, he asked. “8 minutes,” came back the reply. “How am I supposed to say everything I know about English literature in 8 minutes?” asked Shaw. To which the reply came back: “Speak very slowly.”
So, speaking very slowly, I want to sum up a few key ideas about Judaism that drive my life and that I have tried to convey to you over the past 14 years:
if I had to summarise them in one sentence it is: you are not alone; you don’t have to be perfect; keep perspective; hold onto hope.
You are not alone is one of the most potent and enduring messages that Judaism has gifted to the world. It’s there at the beginning of creation when God says to the first created human being: Alone-ness is not good for the human condition, people need people.
It’s what sets Abraham on his path to the stars, it’s what drives the destiny of Moses, it’s what kept us Jews going for centuries. We are fanatical about family; we are true believers in community. And when it comes to community, if there is a Jewish gene, it is not the money gene it is the compassion gene. It was shaped in the Egyptian slavery and planted in our DNA – this need for empathy and the imperative to help and support others, particularly the vulnerable.
No Jew (and indeed any human being) should ever feel alone. And never have these words been more significant than in a time of pandemic and distress. In this protracted Covid season when young children, teenagers, the single and the old in particular, but even the strong, are feeling the stress; when fatigue including compassion- fatigue is everywhere, we are called on to dig deep, to reach out beyond our own selves, to recognise the words of the African proverb that if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together. If this pandemic is a time of reset, it’s surely a time to restore the balance, to replace extreme individualism with strong communitarianism.
And there are many ways to do community – you can do it in a shule, you can do it in one of the many Melbourne Jewish community groups, you can start your own collective or Chaburah. It’s something we Jews are especially good at and many young Jews across our community are particularly good at ….
If the first message, is you don’t have to be alone, the second is you don’t have to be perfect.
Judaism is a particularly demanding religion with so many rules and restrictions, but it’s also a deeply understanding faith, one that recognises the frailty of being human. God wants us to do our best but God doesn’t expect us to be gods. God knows that we will fall and fail.
That’s why the words of brave four-time grand slam champ Naomi Osaka (after pulling out of the French Open) are so important: it’s okay not to be okay she said. It’s okay to put your mental health first, it’s alright to disappoint some because you’re putting yourself or your family first. The perfect is indeed the enemy of the good. We wouldn’t need a Yom Kippur if were angels. We wouldn’t need Teshuva. We wouldn’t need to forgive and be forgiven if we were flawless.
And that also translates into our Jewish practise. One of my messages to you has always been that when it comes to Jewish life it’s not about the all or nothing but about the something. You don’t have to be a faultless, to be a good Jew but you also can’t be clueless …Learn a little more, do a bit more-act more Jewish, do more Jewish…
The world is a complex and imperfect place and we are the creatures of it, so when we fall, we need to be gentle on ourselves and others, recognise our wrongs, try change them, pick ourselves up and start again. Seek help if you need it – remember you are not alone. Renewal is at the very heart of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It’s a particularly potent message for pandemic times when so many are so angry and disenchanted.
And that’s why the third message-keep perspective- is so urgent.
We Jews have been around for a long time, we have learned that nothing in the human heart lasts forever, that even vitriolic hatred can be outlived. We are the people of the long perspective; we too are a dream people; We haven’t given up on our belief that the world can be a better place. And that is why our mantra has been that this too will pass. In one of the most audacious acts of faith ever recorded, the celebrated Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, living in the midst of a Jerusalem in flames, escapes and reestablishes a new centre of Jewish learning and renewal. We in Melbourne who have lived with and witnessed the astonishing survivors of the Shoah, know too well what perspective is all about. This pandemic too shall pass.
These three messages reach their climax in the fourth and final one: hold on to hope.
We are the quintessential believers in hope. Not for nothing is the song and anthem of the new Israel Hatikva. Yes, even in the midst of a pandemic there is reason for hope.
We owe it to our children and grandchildren, we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to our people and we owe it to the world.
Remember that the Chinese symbol for crisis contains two parts: Danger and opportunity. At a time like this it is easy to surrender to the fear, to seek the consolations of certainty in simple explanations, conspiracy theories and denial of facts and reality. That’s why we see the awful rise in antisemitism and extremism. But at times like this we can actually make changes to address the deep fissures that Covid has exposed. To create a more equitable, just and accepting society for our first peoples and those trapped in poverty, to reset our climate decisions, to rejig our attitudes to migrants and those languishing in the limbo of non-citizenship in Australia and those God-forsaken islands. What an opportunity to restore Judaism’s hope for a world tempered by justice and driven by compassion!
So, let’s pause now, count to eight and say slowly:
You are not alone
You don’t have to be perfect
Keep your perspective
Hold on to hope …..
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah to you and your family from Caron and our family
May the year bring healing and hope to our troubled planet.
Rabbi Ralph Genende