Owls for Our Time

A few weeks ago on a Friday evening as I stepped outside after dinner for a walk, my son Yoni pointed out an unusual sight – an owl on the roof and one close by on a tree. It’s not often you catch a sight of an owl in Melbourne and two is a treat!

These silent and solitary birds have a singular presence and of course a rich symbolism. I was tickled to see them on this particular Shabbat as I had just been reading about birds and beasts in the parasha. In fact the very first mention of owls in the Torah was in that week’s parasha (Shemini): ”The little owl, the fish owl and the short-eared owl. The barn owl, the eagle owl…”(Leviticus,11:17-18)

I’m no orthinologist, but Australia has eleven owl species including the barn owl and one particular sharp hunter around Melbourne called the powerful owl. Apparently the bush fires have brought more owls into our cities. It lifted my eyes and my heart to catch a glimpse of these two stately birds. There’s something majestic about their intense stillness, something instructive in their focus and patience. Granted, this is in the human perception, and anthropomorphic (the way we ascribe human emotion to animals), but it’s the symbolism that talks to me today. In these strange and troubling times we can learn from our feathery friends about solitariness and foresight, patience and persistence.

Owls in some cultures are associated with death but are more commonly indicative of wisdom and hope. Minerva’s owl (adopted by Hegel) was appreciated for its deadly eyesight, its capacity to see in the dark and anticipate the light. While owls are basically treif, their characteristics are essentially Jewish !We value wisdom and the very definition of wisdom or chochma is the ability to look ahead as in Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 2:9)or Kohelet (2:14)’’The wise person has eyes in his head”. The owls with their long view, their binocular vision – their eyes are large and forward facing – their fixed focus, are models of clarity and optimism for us. We are, after all, the people of the long view, the eternal civilisation of hope. We are the purveyors of the principle that this too will pass, having faith that Coved 19 will be defeated, that there is light in this darkness …We have also often been as solitary as the owls in our pursuit of justice,”a people that dwells alone”.

We are not, however, blinded by the daylight in our faith, mindful of both human character and our history of pain and suffering. We know that often the only thing people have learnt from the past is they haven’t learnt anything ..Yet we continue to believe that people can change. This virus is a real fever of change and life will not simply revert back to where it was. The critical issue in a post Covid age will be whether we will change in a positive and constructive way, whether the spirit of global solidarity will trump the opportunistic and selfish spirit of greed and violence. Whether on a personal level we will slow down, become kinder, more virtuous in our conduct, more principled in our responsibilities towards others – be they our family, community or country. Maybe, just maybe, the ‘crooked timbers of humanity’ can be straightened…

I am a dreamer and optimist and want to believe we will learn from them owls to be wiser and better focused, more patient in working on and with our detractors, more persistent in working alongside others to ensure Australia remains the good and lucky country. That the current goodwill and bipartisanship in our politics will last long enough to ensure we treat all – including refugees and stranded overseas students – with care and dignity.

I am heartened by the many great stories of the human spirit in these times from the centenarian UK. Captain Tom Moore (https://www.smh.com.au/world/europe/captain-tom-moore-becomes-oldest-person-to-top-britain-s-music-chart-20200425-p54n4v.html) to the Israeli soldiers packing food for the needy and singing Ani Maamim (I believe-Click Here).I am strengthened by Rabbi Akiva, his assertion that Gam Zu Le Tovah, this too is for the good, that hope and rebuilding follows despair and loss.

So I am going to keep on looking out for the owls and learning from their magic, wisdom, perspective and solitary stillness…

About the Author
Born in Zimbabwe, raised in South Africa, Rabbi Ralph Genende is a well-known and popular Modern Orthodox Rabbi. Ralph was Senior Rabbi to the Auckland, New Zealand Jewish community for ten years. He then became College Rabbi at Mount Scopus College, member of its Executive Team and Rabbi of Beit Aharon congregation. Currently Rabbi Genende is Senior Rabbi of Caulfield Hebrew Congregation, one of Melbourne’s largest congregations. 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 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 – Eyal (who is married to Carly), Daniella and Yonatan and a grandson Ezra.