The Deep Down Freshness

We lead such busy and noisy lives; always on the go, places to get to, things to do and never enough time in the day…

And as we move from appointments to commitments we’re constantly assailed by sounds. There goes your phone at any time, any place. You’ve got a message, a reminder, a call or a calendar update. It doesn’t respect shules or schools, family or funeral. I’m tempted to nail on the Shule door a new thesis of faith:

“When you enter this shule, it may be possible that you hear the “call of God”. However it is unlikely that he will call you on your mobile. Thank you for turning off your phones. If you want to talk to God, enter, choose a quiet place and talk to Him. If you want to see Him, send Him a text while driving.”

It seems there are no more quiet spaces just sounds intruding into every corner of our lives, every cranny of our souls. Once you could retreat into the country for peace; now the drone of the bees has been replaced by the whine of a pesky drone. In the most remote wilderness a satellite watches you, a phone calls out to you, Netflix beckons you…

I’m no Amish (in fact I’m quite heimish); I’m no rejectionist of progress (in reality without my Apple I’m a mess). But I do worry that all that ceaseless activity and sound is eroding something deep and important .That we’re losing touch with ourselves, that our souls are being dulled, our spirituality diminished.

Spending the past ten days on a remote farming station in the South Island of New Zealand, brought this to me with force and clarity. Finally I have the time and headspace to just be, to sink into the endlessness of the horizon and the moment. When I look up, it’s into the arms of the South Island’s majestic snow-capped alpine mountain range; Mt Cook rising with an exquisite yet forbidding grace. On my left, soft hills and cattle lowing, on my right the original homestead nestled in a glorious garden of large oaks, native trees and streams. Later we drive into the wild hills in a 4WD; not a soul in sight just wild deer and frantic rabbits, impossible tracks meander over treacherous heights. Here you can hear the voices of the rivers, trees and wind. Here you can ‘daven’ with an awesome conviction – You understand what moved David to call out: “Let the rivers clap their hands, the mountains sing together for joy before the Lord’’ (Psalm 98). Here you hear and see a wild swarm of bees making their way to a new home; it’s a scary yet an excitingly evocative frisson. And above hawks circle elegantly and lazily in the cool breezes and rivulets of air; a few wild ducks aren’t so dignified as they noisily skim across lake and river. The great religious poet, Gerard Hopkins no doubt inspired by Israel’s psalmist writes:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God…
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil…
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

On a solitary bike ride beside huge paddocks of cows, I get to think about the awful damage these calm, ruminating beasts are causing to our environment. Of course it’s us and all we are doing to the earth including our appetite for beef that is the greatest menace to our planet. A Japanese study showed that producing a kilogram of beef leads to the emission of greenhouse gases with a global warming potential equivalent to 36.4 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2) not to mention the release of fertilising compounds. In other words, a kilogram of beef is responsible for the equivalent of the amount of CO2 emitted by the average European car every 250 kilometres, and burns enough energy to light a 100-watt bulb for nearly 20 days (New Scientist magazine, 18 July 2007). I wonder if Hopkins were around today if he would still be as convinced that we are not eroding that pristine core of our earth, that deep down freshness…This isn’t just a trendy lefty impulse but a fundamental principle of the Torah-it calls on us to take care of the earth we have been entrusted with; as in the first chapters of Genesis, Adam is called on to work the earth and to GUARD and protect it.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has put it bluntly that we can no longer ignore the massive negative impact that our global industrial society is having on the ecosystems of the earth. Our unbounded use of fossil fuels to fuel our energy-intensive lifestyles is causing global climate change. “An international consensus of scientists predicts more intense and destructive storms, floods, and droughts resulting from these human-induced changes in the atmosphere. If we do not take action now, we risk the very survival of civilisation as we know it.” The Midrash says that God showed Adam around the Garden of Eden and said, “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are – how excellent! For your sake I created them all. See to it that you do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.”

Outside the window of our farm bedroom there’s a beautiful bush of lush lavender and around it the constant movement of busy bees (they produce a delectable honey too). They remind me that nature is not benign, it has its sting but is also sweet and full of energy. The drone of these creature are good sounds and as refreshing as the sonorous silence of God’s distant places of wild beauty. They remind us just how much power and strength we can draw from the natural world. The Pulitzer Prize winning American poet, Mary Oliver, who died recently, phrased it beautifully when she penned one of her many nature poems:

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Let’s be sure to protect these places, our places, and curb our appetite to sear and blear.

Shabbat Shalom,

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.