Lessons for Living: Balance and Harmony

A traditional Japanese diet is exceptionally well balanced.

It contains more fish than red meat, plenty of colourful vegetables, small portions of rice, little in processed foods and is low in calories. It is extremely nutritious, not to mention delicious. As a result,many of the Japanese tend to live long and healthy lives although some consider an expensive sushi to be a raw deal!

I share this with you because balance and harmony are on my mind. Balance, because the world is so imbalanced and improbable, so shaky and unpredictable.

The timeless words of the Irish poet WB Yeats come to mind:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood dimmed tide is loosed upon the world,and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned…

Harmony, because this week is Harmony Week and on Monday we marked Harmony Day and International Day for the Elimination of Racial discrimination. Harmony week celebrates Australia’s cultural diversity – it’s about inclusiveness, respect and a sense of belonging for everyone. It has now been adopted by many countries across the world.

We still have a long way to go in Australia. So many of our first peoples don’t have a sense of belonging in their own land. Too many of our citizens still suffer from racial hatred and discrimination.

During the Covid crisis the very moorings of our multifaith and multicultural environment have been undermined. An ugly polarisation, paranoia and moral pusillanimity have prevailed.

The dreadful scenes coming out of Ukraine speak of a world of devastating disharmony, those blood-dimmed tides .

If there is only one image of this war that will continue to haunt me, it is of the father discovering the death of his wife and two children from a Twitter tweet. The interview with him dismantled my heart piece by piece, as he recalled the life of his two teenage children so full of hopes and dreams, now lying lifeless and abandoned on the cold concrete pavement of a shattered city. It’s only one image and yet each day brings another harvest of horror.

I am a religious man.

I believe in a God of compassion and kindness, but this week I felt the despair of a world abandoned by God and the words of another English poet ( A E Houseman)spoke so cruelly to me:

We for a certainty are not the first
 Have sat in taverns while the tempest hurled
 Their hopeful plans to emptiness, and cursed
Whatever brute and blackguard made the world.

I love my Judaism because it recognises the dark and dangerous world we live in, a world where evil does sometimes triumph and the fine face of God is concealed from us. The Torah and Jewish Tradition talk of ‘Hester Panim’ , the fact that at times God is hidden and perhaps even withdraws in alarm from us .

And I love my Judaism because it also reminds us of hope and humanity in the face of destruction and devastation. It also reminds us that, as in the thought of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, we may not find the answers to the why of human suffering or why human beings can be so brutal , but we can always find a how, we can always choose how we respond to anarchy, hatered and nihilism.

Viktor Frankl, the fabled Holocaust survivor and psychologist taught us that we may not be able to choose our destiny, but we can choose our attitude to whatever life throws at us. Even out of disaster and trauma we can piece our lives together again, bit by bit, hope by hope, act by act.

We have the capacity given to us by God to start again, to recreate, to restore harmony in the face of humiliation and disparagement. To conquer apathy with empathy.

We may not be able to do much about the war in the Ukraine beyond our fierce opposition, generous charity and genuine   prayers -and our hearts go out to all of those across our own community who are feeling so battered and shaken by it. We can however ensure that in our own homes ,in our own workplaces, in our own neighbourhoods, in our own country we can be on the side of the better angels.

We can work to strengthen the connections between people of different backgrounds and races religions and faces. We can join together for all who fight for freedom and desire democracy.

We can work on ourselves. Jewish tradition has always recognised the value of a life of measure and moderation while also appreciating just how hard it is to achieve.

The story of Jacob in the book of Genesis is in many ways an exploration of pivoting the demands of a full life, of navigating the twin tides of our human-ness: love and labour. The demands of work, the needs of our family and friends, the responsibility towards community and towards ‘the other’challenge us every day. The key element is of course striving to find the harmony within. Gandhi articulated it so wisely: it’s when, what you think, what you say and what you do is in harmony.

So as the sun gently sinks into the Melbourne horizon, let’s think harmony, let’s pursue peace, pray for sushi and spirituality and work for balance!

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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