Rabbi Ralph OAM Keeps Connected
At my recent book launch, I was asked about the title of the work - Living in an Upside Down World - after all this planet of ours has always lived through turmoil, surely our time is not exceptional, it is just 'ours’. Yes, it’s true that the time is always singular and exceptional for those living through it.
Previous generations would probably have considered their era as inverted and possibly the ‘worst of times’. That’s just the point I was making by this title - life has always been messy and convoluted and will always be.
In fact the title of the book is Talmudic which recognises this: The Talmud (Pesachim 50a) tells a story of Joseph, the son of the sage, Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi who became seriously ill and was thought to have died. Then he suddenly regained consciousness. It was as if he had returned from some far - away place. As he regained consciousness, his father said to him: ‘What did you see?’ Joseph said: ‘I saw a world turned upside down. What is above was below and what is below was above.’ His father said to him: ‘My son you have seen a clear world, you have seen the world clearly.’ It’s only the most clear sighted and wise who recognise and accept the reality of our flawed globe.
Yes, the tilt in our age may be perceived as more acute and dangerous than before because it’s both global and existential, ranging as it does from climate extinction or disaster to nuclear conflagration. But for those who lived through 27 October 1962, the day that later became known as “Black Saturday”, that was the most frightening nuclear and existential experience for the entire world. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called that event, the Cuban Missile Crisis, “the most dangerous moment in human history.” Scholars and politicians agree that for several days the world was the closest it has ever come to nuclear Armageddon.
Today is the third of Elul, the month that precedes Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish New Year.
This is a month of preparation and introspection, a time to look within and reflect on what we can do without; what we can do for the world outside of ourselves. It’s a period of self-examination focusing on how we can improve our ethics and character; how we can shed our negative thoughts, resentments and unhealthy habits - the internal thugs we can do without! It’s also a space in time that we can explore how to be better family members, friends, workers and citizens. It’s an opportunity to draw on the finer parts of ourselves, to err on the side of generosity and kindness, to assess others more favourably, to be more gentle with our words and actions.
It’s also an occasion to contemplate how we can navigate our troubled times, a world in crisis.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur may be Jewish holy days, but they are universal in their imprint and message. They are about a profound awareness of the deeply troubled and anguished world we live in. An unflinching insight into the imperfections of human beings, our failures towards others and towards our planet.
Judaism never shied away from the harshness of life and the fragility of our lives. It has however always encouraged us to confront the challenges and to defy the difficulties. This too underlies the power and potency of these Jewish Days of Awe, of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We aren’t just victims, playthings of the gods, we are captains of our destiny, champions of our choices. These may be what Charles Dickens called the worst of times, but they’re also the best of times.
Despite all the difficulties, inequities, frustrations and dangers of this time, there is still so much hope, potential, love, compassion and goodness around us and within us.
This month of Elul, this season of introspection, is about people of goodwill working together to unlock the incredible power we possess to change and rearrange the world. Let’s do it!
Chodesh Tov, A Good Month to you all.