I woke up this morning to find my car covered in a sludge of red mud, the swimming pools in Melbourne, like the Yarra River, had turned a dirty orange. It was all apparently a gift from the north and dust storms in the Mallee drifting our way.
After the smoke haze, the golf-ball (or were they tennis-ball) sized hail stones and the torrential ran (not to mention the fires and Corona Virus still spreading) you could be forgiven for thinking you were back in ancient Egypt confronting the plagues.
As I read this week’s parasha (Va’era) I couldn’t help but make the obvious connection. This week’s Torah reading is precisely about the first seven plagues: the first, that of a blood red Nile, the third was implemented through Aaron striking the dust of the land and the seventh is the affliction of hail: “There was hail and fire flaming amid the hail” (Exodus 9:24).
Regarding Aaron picking up a handful of dust to bring the plague of lice, TS Eliot’s line comes to mind: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” Eliot’s line in turn, reminds one of the vulnerability of humanity: we are but frail creatures created out of the dust to which we return at the end of our lives. And the raging fires and fearsome drought across our country are a sharp reminder of our fragility on this canny continent.
This weekend we will be focusing, not on the pain but on the pride of being Australians. Our hearts may be heavy for the losses of life, human and animal, the devastation of our environment, our thoughts with those living in shelters and the ongoing anguish of drought affected farmers and communities. But we will also be celebrating how good and generous a country this is in its freedom, diversity and democracy. And how good a place it is to be a Jew when so many Jews across the world are encountering vituperative anti-Semitism virtually every day.
At a reception at Government House this week to celebrate Australia Day, our Jewish Governor, the Honourable Linda Dessau, spoke about the fires, but also about the spirit of Australians in fighting the flames and responding to the destruction. Her words reminded me of the observation of the celebrated American dancer and singer Fred Astaire (1899-1987) that he learned how to cope with crisis and tragedy from his Mum: “My mother would say to me, look for the helpers, you will always find people who are helping…and I am always comforted by realising that there are still so many helpers…in this world.” The outpouring of support and prodigious generosity of Australians in responding to this crisis is simply breathtaking and beautifully affirming of the human spirit. People who have mucked in to provide essentials for those suffering (including wild life), opened their homes and their hearts. The response of our Jewish community to the appeals has been heart-warming (and you can still donate – click here) and reminiscent of our ancestors generous giving for the building of the Mishkan / Tabernacle in their wilderness wanderings: “The men and women came; everyone whose heart motivated them brought bracelets, rings, body ornaments” (Exodus 35:22) until Moses had to ask them to stop giving!
I was struck by the story of the firefighters enlisted by the NSW government to save a pre-historic pine grove which is located in a secret area within the 5,000 square kilometre Wollemi National Park northwest of Sydney. The pines are thought to have existed during the Jurassic period and this is the only place in the world where these 200 trees are found in the wild. Large air tankers of fire retardant were dropped in the grove while specialist firefighters were winched down to set up an irrigation system to protect the trees from catching alight. The photos show a swathe of green in a wild and charred landscape.
This story spoke to me about our resilience and ingenuity and about the audacity of hope. We have the capacity to preserve optimism in the face of destruction. There is almost always a live green spot in the dead wasteland just like the fresh buds sprouting out of burnt grass and trees. Our community can testify to this especially on Holocaust Remembrance Day being marked this week on 27 January. Let’s also remember that even as the environment seems to be punishing us for abusing it, we owe it a debt of gratitude. Thus the Midrash reminds us that Moshe himself does not strike either the water or dust to bring on the plagues because the river had protected him when he was thrown into it and the dust had protected him when he hid the Egyptian taskmaster’s body in the sand. If the environment has looked out for us, we need to look out for it.
On Australia Day we are also mindful that for many of our aboriginal citizens this is a day that brings painful reminders of dislocation and stolen generations. Even at the Government House reception this issue was raised by one of the speakers. There is an argument for changing the date which for many indigenous people marks the commencement of their dispossession and marginalism. Nonetheless, while January 26 remains on our calendar as Australia Day, let’s use it to celebrate our accomplishment and our pride and also our commitment to affirming the multicultural face and the ancient Aboriginal trace of our country.