Words of Inspiration and Chizuk (March 27 2020)

There are lines that leap out of our daily prayers and speak to me during these days of dismay and dissonance. They give me strength, they give me solace. I’ve said them a thousand times, but this time, in these times, they are strangely, eerily resonant. And being able to say them in the solitude, quiet space and measured pace of home pares them down to their essence. There’s a power and wisdom in these ancient words; they speak of centuries of suffering and anguish. Every reference to plague – and there are countless -in our prayers and psalms startles my soul. And so the references in the long tachanun tefillah said on Mondays and Thursdays which I’m usually happy to skip (with a legit loophole of course …) I now embrace like a long lost friend (before Social distancing, mind you):

“Do not abandon us, Lord our God, do not be distant from us, for we are worn out by sword and confinement (read quarantine and isolation), pestilence and plague, and by every trouble and sorrow.“

I think back constantly to the prayers we prayed on Rosh Hashana and am haunted by the phrases of the chilling Unetaneh Tokef-Who will live and who will die, who by fire, who by plague, extended now by who on a cruise ship and who on a respirator…

But I am heartened by the innumerable messages of hope and courage transmitted in our tefillot. This is no false bravado or Pollyanna optimism . These are real and vigorous sentiments born out of suffering, out of the crucible of the crusades, the expulsions from Europe, the horror of the Bubonic Plague and cholera epidemics. In that tachanun prayer, for example, there is as Sacks points out a remarkable absence of anger or despair. If we ever doubt the power of prayer to transform the human situation, here we find an answer. These prayers were penned in the periods of persecution by the Romans and then Gothic band Frankish persecutions in the seventh century.

“As a father has compassion on his children, so Lord have compassion on us and save us… save us from all distress and sorrow… Do not abandon us… I believe in the power of prayer but not in blind prayer. Prayer will not help a fool who deliberately courts danger. Prayer will not help those reckless zealots here in Melbourne and overseas who hold minyanim in stealth during this time of danger. They may believe they are praying in the name of God but they are shaming His name as they put their lives, our lives, in jeopardy. They need all our prayers to clear their befuddled brains and confused hearts …

I believe that even atheists and agnostics can draw some strength and inspiration from prayer if just for their sheer beauty and wonder, if just for their unsurpassed and tested wisdom. It’s worth a gamble at least …

This morning the Modim prayer of thanks in the daily Amida gave me a special lift. I was wondering just how can we give thanks to God at a time like this and then the words quietly and gently rebuked me: They said to me: You God are the Rock of our lives – you have stood by us from generation to generation, we have seen terrible times before. Our souls are in your hands, we are all, across this wide world of yours, in your hands. We are brought closer in our common humanity, our shared destiny. We know you suffer with us and are compassionate and will help us discover the best parts of ourselves if we allow ourselves to do so. You will help us get through this if we help ourselves and one another. We thank you for the gift of life, for every morning that brings light, for the midday sun in our gardens, for the evenings when we look into each other’s eyes with thoughtfulness and caring, we have always placed our hope in You….

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.