It was another tough Rosh Hashanah.
Once again, our shules were empty, our families were not around the table, our souls bereft. Yes, there was the consolation of intrepid shofar blowers on our streets, the opportunity to dive deep into some of the prayers that may usually be glossed over, a quietness and peacefulness in most of the Caulfield neighbourhood. And as we prayed and meditated in our homes, it was surely with the hope that next year, if not in Jerusalem, we will at least be celebrating back in our shules and in our homes together with our families.
What we did not need was news of clandestine minyanim down the road in Ripponlea.
My initial response was one of anger and outrage. How could this small group endanger all of us and bring disrepute to us yet again? Surely, they know that preservation of life (Pikuach Nefesh) is the primary principle of our people; that it overrides praying in a minyan. Surely when they said – ‘Who will live and who will die’ they could not but help think of the implications of Covid? Surely, they understand that we are all responsible for one another, Kol Yisrael Areivim, that they know too well about the principle of love your fellow Jew, Ahavat Yisrael. And even if they are suspicious of and reject government rules, they would need to think about the responsibility that they have not to create a Chilul Hashem, not to strengthen the anti-Semites out there. I can’t even imagine the intellectual gymnastics they would need to perform to deny the words of the many Rosh Hashana prayers that on this day we are praying not only for ourselves, but for the entire world. Surely, simply in the interests of self-preservation of their community they would want to act carefully and judiciously.
I do not want to be angry, especially during this awesome period on our calendar-the Ten Days of Teshuvah or penitence. In our daily prayers and selichot, we are appealing to God, not to judge us with anger, but to treat us with compassion and forgiveness. In this spirit I try and understand the minds and hearts of my fellow Jews. I will give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they are motivated by the love of God and the Torah. I understand the passion to pray together, I recognise the need to connect to others on these most sacred days on our calendar. I can appreciate the sentiment that these prayers in themselves may be equated with the preservation of life and community. I also know that you can find justification in the Halacha and rabbinic approval for these actions. I strive to understand the possible underlying fear of losing identity, that to give in to the restrictions of Covid is to give in to a society you do not respect. We are, after all, in a society which often has a lack of moral clarity and sometimes seems to have lost its moral compass. Families are fraying especially in these times, and we are awash in a sea of porn, alcohol and drugs.
I speak to you my fellow Ripponlea Jews not in a spirit of anger but in one of sadness and bewilderment. I speak to you as a Chaver, a fellow frum Jew. I speak to you out of angst – I ask you to think about the Jews and yes even the non-Jews in your neighborhood who may get Covid because of you. What if you become the cause of the spread of the disease? Will you be able to say?: “Our eyes did not see, ‘our hands did not spill this blood’ “(Deuteronomy 21,7). I ask you to contemplate whether this is the way Hashem wants you to act. Does He really want you to shame the name of the Jews of Australia? Would He really approve of these actions that you do in His name?
I know that you are familiar with the concept of modesty and I’m sure you know that it applies not only to the way we dress but also to the way we act. I wonder if you have ever considered that your behaviour can be perceived as arrogant in its assumption that you know better than anyone else what is right. I know you often feel that people around you don’t understand you or do not treat you with the dignity and respect you deserve. And there is possibly some truth in this. However, I ask you to consider that respect begets respect. You probably don’t have much time for Martin Luther King Junior but maybe his words will touch your heart:
Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.
But if you don’t like this King, I know you will respect the words of our King, Avinu Malkeinu : ‘Our Father, our King, remember us for the favourable deeds before You… You remember all of creation …the memory of every being comes before You… The thoughts and pains of all humankind and the impulses behind each person’s act.’ (From the RH Musaph prayer-Zichronot). I am hopeful that in this spirit you will recognise the harmfulness of your actions and redress the harm you have caused.
I hope in the days to come, in the year to come, we will all pay more attention to our actions and the way that they impact on the lives of everyone around us. Perhaps we will all be a little more forgiving of others and of ourselves, that we will let go of anger, say sorry when we need to and I love you whenever we can. Let’s focus on what we can change and control in our thoughts and in our speech, in our emotions and in our actions. Let’s find ways to help and heal.
May our prayers this Yom Kippur, even from the solitariness of our homes, help counter the curse of Covid and bring about the blessings of a better, healthier and more hopeful year.
And in the lovely words that Prof Frank Oberklaid brought to my attention:
“May we see the smiles behind the masks
May we hug without keeping distance
May we enjoy a fragrance other than sanitisers
And may Corona return to be just a beer”
Shabbat Shalom and Gemar Chatimah Tovah