Light A Fire!

During this past week I had the good fortune to participate in a Diwali Celebration in Canberra. Diwali is a festival of lights and one of the major festivals celebrated by Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and some Buddhists. It represents the symbolic victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance and good over evil. In the lead-up to Deepavali, celebrants prepare by cleaning, renovating, and decorating their homes and workplaces with diyas (oil lamps) and rangolis (colorful art circle patterns).

During Diwali, people wear their finest clothes, illuminate the interior and exterior of their homes with saaki (earthen lamp), diyas and rangoli, perform worship ceremonies, light fireworks and partake in family feasts.

I was moved by the strong community spirit, the devotion and the joy of the participants, the light and the color. I was struck by the similarities to some of our Jewish practices especially around Passover and Chanukah. At Pesach or Passover time we also clean our homes and perform a ritual with light (a candle ) to symbolize the searchlight into our souls and we dress in our new and fine clothes in honor of the festival. The Passover or exodus story has its origins in a fiery or burning bush revealed to Moses. At Chanukah time we hope our chanukiyot or 8 branched candelabras at our windows will spread the power of light into a dark world outside.

The theme of light illuminating the darkness is shared by most religions and is desperately needed in these dark days of climate devastation and deadly war. During these worrying times, there are at least three steps worth taking:

The first step is to create space in your life for the things that really matter, for family and friends. If you are fortunate enough to be in a marriage or partnership, to have a family and friends you can rely on, then never take them for granted. We need to work hard and constantly at our relationships. No one ever achieved success without hard work and not for nothing is the Jewish word for serving God Avodah which also means hard work.

Researchers at Michigan university found married people age 22-79 who said they had at least two close friends – meaning at least one beside their spouse – had higher levels of life satisfaction and self-esteem and lower levels of depression than spouses who did not have close friends outside their marriage. The rabbis of the Mishnah obviously knew what they were talking about when they said strive in life to find a Chaver Tov and a partner Tov/Tovah.

We need to be careful not to idealize these relationships – they are not only hard work, they’re also heart work and can be gut-wrenching. Relationship therapists, Tim and Kathy Keller write that marriage and I would say parenting and friendship – involve fighting and recovery, small and large acts of betrayal and apology. They say, “the one person in the whole world to hold your heart in your hand, whose approval and affirmation you most long for indeed, is the one who is hurt more deeply by your sins than anyone else on the planet”. And I would add this is also the one your genuine  apology and acts to restore recovery will matter most to.

The second step is to reach out, create and strengthen community. It’s about creating connections. We are wired for connection – it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives (Brené Brown). That’s what the Hebrew word Kesher means -connectedness linkage, a bonding; it’s the last letters of the alphabet right there close to the omega the final solitary.

COVID-19 is still with us – the cracks revealed in health, aged and disability care, the fissures opened in relationships, the fractures created for many young kids and it seems most acutely for teens in their development, the aching loneliness of many living solitary lives. Antisemitism and dismissal of the other is thriving across the world.

There is something transformative about being part of a group who pray, celebrate, remember and hope together. If it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a community to reach a full flowering of happiness. If we have learnt one lesson from the pandemic, it should surely be that virtual communities are no substitute for real communities. Facebook can’t replace a face-to-face encounter. It is by strengthening our connections to our own communities – as well as to the wider community of Australia so that we can help heal the fissures and create a better future for the next generation.

The third step is to recognize and affirm that life is not about the idea of power but the power of the idea.

Greek philosophers may have excelled at this but Judaism has made it an enduring part of our lifestyle and remains one of the most powerful gifts we continue to give to the world. We have a great intellectual tradition that encourages curiosity and questioning, searching and seeking and restlessly asserting that the world can be a better place. In my mind this in itself is a reason for young people to remain Jewish.

There is an old saying that if you catch on fire with enthusiasm, people will come for miles to watch you burn. It was Abraham who ignited that passion by breaking the idols of his father, confronting God and challenging the society around him, it was Moses who fueled that passion with his burning bush moment. These founders of the Jewish people with their fearsome protection of the vulnerable, rejection of authoritarianism and power, fanaticism for freedom and social justice helped shape Western civilization and are an inspiration for the younger generation. And I say: thank God for all the incredible models we have in our community and in Australia across different communities of young individuals inflamed by tzedakah and mishpat, justice, charity and compassion.

As we prepare to light our Shabbat candles we hope to welcome peace, warmth and love into our homes. We hope it will inspire all people of goodwill to continue to light a fire for goodness and caring, for peace and wellbeing.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Diwali to all our Hindu colleagues,

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.