The Still Small Voice, Rosh Hashanah 2017/5778

We had a power outage at our house this morning and my PC, laptop, TV, DVD. IPad, and my new surround sound music system were all shut down. Then I discovered that my mobile phone battery was dead and to top it off it was raining outside, so I couldn’t play golf. I went into the kitchen to make coffee and then I remembered that this also needs power, so I sat and talked with my wife for a couple of hours. She seems like a nice person.

Sometimes it’s only when we switch off that we truly switch on, that when we stop the noise, we hear the silence. And it’s only when we stand still and really listen that we’re reminded about what really counts, what really matters.

Let me tell you about someone who took a lifetime to learn this lesson. He was smart, he was wild, he was passionate, a marathon man who ran like a racehorse, fanatical about his religion, dramatic by his nature and prodigious in his talent. He’s one of the most well-known names in Judaism, one of the least understood: You’ll recognise his name from the benching and possibly the song:

הרחמן הוא ישלח לנו את אליהו

He’s remembered at the seder and he’s recalled at a brit, he’s a mythical miracle man taking on the false prophets at Mt Carmel and beating them!

But you want to know what is the most dramatic moment in his life – Not his amazing miracles – and he did a good few of those – resuscitating the nearly dead, being touched by an angel, fed by the birds. No none of these! Rather it’s an epiphany he has in a cave on Mt Sinai (maybe the very one Moses had sheltered in).

First he witnesses a typhoon – ‘a great and mighty wind, splitting the mountains and shattering the rocks but the Lord was not in the wind. Then after the wind, there was an awesome earthquake but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake – a fire… but God was not in the furious fire’. And then after the fire קול דממה דקה a soft, silent, murmuring sound, a still, small, thin voice.

Not in the sound and the fury but in the deep silence of his heart – that’s where Elijah discovers God, that’s where Elijah finds Elijah. That’s where he knows for the first time who he really is and what really matters. And that’s where we find out who we really are and what we’re really made of. And it’s no coincidence that this small, little voice is recalled at the very heart of our Musaph prayer today and again on Yom Kippur in the powerful Unetaneh Tokef prayer.

It’s only after this revelation that Elijah can answer the question twice – posed to him by God מה לך פה – just what are you doing here?

And that’s what God asks of each of us today מה לך פה – what are you doing here – not that he’s surprised to find you in shul (well maybe, just a little) but what are you doing here on earth with the brief time that I’ve given you?

Are you using it wisely and productively not just to do a cool reno on your home, buy a new Audi Coupe or Jag or jazzy little Honda or a trip to Bali or a cruise to Antarctica, but are you using it to open your hands and heart to others?

We all have our Elijah moments when that little voice will simply not be shut up or out. It’s what Gandhi meant when he said:  The only tyrant I accept in this world is the still voice within. And I would add it’s the voice of my conscience, my authentic self… “To thine own self be true”:

What makes this revelation so shocking is that Elijah only gets it right at the very end of his life. Shortly after this incident God sends him to implement his succession plan, to elect Elisha and to prepare for death.

Sometimes it takes a lifetime to find out who you really are, to uncover the real voice within. It took me a while to discover my own voice and a bit longer to find the courage to assert it. For my trouble I’ve been called a heretic, bagged on blogs and put on a black list, but it’s been worth it! An elderly congregant recently made an appointment to see me. I assumed she wanted to talk about her physical or spiritual condition, her family or her tzorres. Instead she presented me with a bottle of Scotch saying: A bottle of Black Label for making it to the Chief Rabbi’s Black List!

When God first asked Elijah “why are you here”, he replied “Because I’m a zealot, I’m a fanatic for you, I speak for you God”. קנה קנאתי ל’ה And God’s response – I don’t need extremists talking in my name – now you need to move on, but you can come back in every generation as the man who brings love and peace at every ברית and every seder and as the forerunner of the .משיח You will be remembered, not for your passionate and furious behaviour on my behalf but as the one who mends wounded hearts and heals broken relationships.

והשיב לב אבות אל בנים…

We have too many zealots around today too ready to speak in the name of God, convinced of their moral superiority, filled with moral outrage. And they aren’t just barbaric Islamists or Buddhist monks in Burma. Right wing Nazi zealots in Charlotville. Crazy Christians like Jerry Falwell praising Trump after Charlotville. They’re on the streets of Hebron, Ramat Beit Shemesh, Meah Shearim and Bnei Brak, in the office of the Chief Rabbinate. We’ve even got a few of them strutting down Carlisle St and Glen Eira Rd. And we don’t need any more furious warriors in the Same Sex debate. Both sides (yes & no) could do without the intemperate, moralistic fury and hysterical assertions and the competition for victimhood. Thanks to Kim of Korea and Donald of New York and the tyranny of social media, the tenor of our conversations today is loud and furious, everybody is outraged and everybody feels entitled to blog or broadcast their opinions, no matter how thoughtless, tactless or tasteless.

We will be judged like Elijah not by how loudly and violently we have declared our faith in God, but by how we treat the weakest and most vulnerable in our society – Jewish or non-Jewish: the stranger and the refugee, the disabled and the single parent, the abused child and the battered woman, the desperate Aboriginal teenager in custody, the homeless man outside Coles, the Muslim woman being vilified for wearing a hijab. We will be judged by how we behave in business and in relationships. We will be evaluated by how we treat and talk about people we disagree with. Are we just out to screw everyone or to lift them up? As the Midrash puts it when you’re born your hands are clenched as if to say the whole world is mine and I will inherit it. When you die your hands are open as if to say I haven’t taken a single thing from this world. Will we clench our fists with passion or open our hands with compassion? Will we rage or be sage?

Like Shai Held, I hold that we need to break the assumption that secular Jews are political activists and religious Jews do mitzvahs. You can do as many mitzvahs as you like, but if you think being religious is just about how punctilious you are about your shul attendance, your כלי שלי on שבת or your latest חומרא stringency about Kashrut – Well you’re not particularly religious because you’ve just discounted over half of our prophetic, prayerful and rabbinic tradition.

And conversely if you think that because you support the homeless, the refugee and the poor but don’t care a lot about your Jewish community and think Shabbat, circumcision, and kashrut are barbaric relics of the past well then you’re not particularly Jewish because you’ve just abandoned some of the essentials of what makes us Jewish.

Being a fully blooded Jew is being as passionate about the Shabbat, Jewish education and community as you are about the displaced of our society. And being as outraged about the exclusion of the vulnerable of our society, the growing disparity between the rich and poor, as you’re enraged by the alienation of our youth from Judaism and the number of people attending shul on Shabbat.

It’s not surprising that the battle for the Jewish soul today is being fought over conversion and recognition of the right of all Jews to be part of the Jewish people.

I’m going to speak more about this on Yom Kippur but let me just say this for now-that we should be filled with awe and joy when someone actually wants to be Jewish today, when they’re prepared to surrender so much of their past and their identity to join our community. These too are the hearts of the children we should turn to in respect and admiration, not rejection and suspicion.

God’s rejection of Elijah is a rejection of violence, a rejection of controlling and micro-management, authoritarianism and power. The words he puts into another prophet’s mouth – Hosea-are what it’s really about and how we need to realign our moral compass:

לא בכח ולא בחייל כי אם ברוחי

Not by strength

Nor by power

But by my spirit

says God of all souls…

A spirit of reason and moderation. A spirit of love and consideration.

Let’s return to a little more custom and civility. The healing of the world’s woes will not come through a strident social or political program but in the still soft voice that speaks to the conscience and the heart. It takes just a few good people to make a difference.

The heart is not only a lonely hunter, it is a fine and refined suitor, a leader of taste and quiet grace – strong as a lion, gentle as a deer, wise as an ancient teacher. It’s right here: It’s in our hearts. It’s in our hands. It’s up to you and me. It’s up to us…

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.
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