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Lessons For Living: Need and Greed

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Rabbi Ralph OAM Keeps Connected

Australia’s most senior criminal intelligence official says organised criminals involved in drug trafficking, violence and money laundering are exploiting systemic weaknesses in the National Disability Insurance Scheme to rort it on an unprecedented scale. Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission chief Michael Phelan has called for a new multi-agency taskforce to tackle the problem, which diverts critical funds away from some of the nation’s most vulnerable people. (Sydney Morning Herald, ‘The Scumbag Scale’: How Organised Crime has infiltrated the NDIS, August 14 2022).

There are probably few things more shameful than the exploitation of the vulnerable. Taking advantage of the weak is a reflection of the weakest component of the human personality. It’s about gross greed and disregard for others. It’s about me dismissing and demeaning you. It’s about cutting off compassion and replacing empathy with cruelty.

It is easy to discount or even dismiss this behaviour as criminal, as something most people would not indulge in. As much as I would like to believe this, the sad truth is that average person is swayed by greed and prone to manipulating and exploiting the fragility of others. Greed drives the best of us - and we have wonderful rationalisations to justify our behaviour such as “I’m just helping myself to what I really deserve …” Large corporations and corrupt governments are sadly among the most egregious of greed merchants. Mahatma Gandhi probably put it best, ‘The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed.’

Spousal violence in our homes, bullying behaviour at school, online, at work, abuse of our children and the targeting of minority groups are all examples of the brutality of ordinary people. The Internet has a myriad of sites which target the vulnerable, the very people the Torah seeks to protect ‘the stranger, the orphan and the widow’. The dark web is a place of brutality, barbarism and exploitation of the fragile.

Savagery sits so comfortably in the human soul. It seems to confirm the sad Biblical statement that the impulse or proclivity of the human heart from their youth is towards evil (Genesis 8:21). Richard Dawkins calls it the selfish gene. The assumption of many thinkers and ordinary people is that we are basically narcissistic in our makeup and incapable of change.

The presumption of the Torah is the very opposite: We may have a selfish gene but we also possess an altruistic gene.

We are capable of extraordinary acts of love and compassion, of generosity and empathy. This is a premise of Judaism and its belief in our ability overcome our worst impulses as well as it’s faith in our capacity for change. It’s the basis for the Days of Awe, the sacred days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur .The well known greeting for the new year is Shanah Tovah which translates as Good Year. The Hebrew word for year - Shanah - is however also the same word that is used for change.

A new year is an opportunity for change, a time to adjust our behaviour, a moment for revision and the chance for a new vision. This weekend (Saturday and Sunday) the month of Elul begins. In Jewish tradition this is a month of preparation and anticipation of the New Year and the time to start the process of change. Even if you’re not Jewish, this could be a good season for rectification. It’s probably easiest to focus on just one or two things that you’d like to do differently and to make an action plan such as I’m going to be kinder to myself, make a stand against bullying…

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks 38 commercial planes and four military aircraft were forced to land at Gander International Airport in Canada. More than 6,500 passengers descended on several small towns in central Newfoundland. Appleton was one of them. Gander was another. The musical Come from Away has dramatised this beautifully. One individual from Appleton, a town of 680 residents who cared for about 90 passengers for up to five days, described the experience: ‘The plane people needed food and a place to eat and sleep. They needed some assurance, compassion, love and counselling. They needed someone to give them a warm hug.’

This little town with it shining embodiment of compassion and caring is a tribute to the human spirit. A reminder that while there were those who piloted planes into destruction, there were those who navigated hearts into construction. They also responded to need without greed.

I may be a dreamer but I believe in dreams and the human ability to overcome their worst impulses.
As in Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28,12), we need to keep our feet firmly on the ground, acknowledge the restless heart of humankind but also keep our eyes firmly above, reaching out with all the love and caring we can find in our hearts.

Wishing you a caring Shabbas. Shabbat Shalom!