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Lessons for Living: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times

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Rabbi Ralph OAM Keeps Connected

The famous opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two cities, begins:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope it was the winter of despair…

These past weeks have felt anything but the best of times. For many across the East Coast of Australia it has been a time of shock and loss in the face of overwhelming floods. For countless citizens of Ukraine and their families and friends across the world it has been the very worst of times, one of darkness and despair.

Unbearable to watch. Unbelievable to witness. Unfathomable to comprehend.

The scale of human suffering pushes the mind and soul to the edges of desperation. If we have learnt anything from the Covid pandemic it should be of our interconnectedness, that we are one body, when one part hurts the other feels it, when a little finger festers, it upsets the equilibrium of the entire body.

In Ukraine, the pain and suffering is there in the young and the old, the sick and the disabled in underground shelters and basements, in bombed buildings and the scarred city landscapes. In the senseless loss of life; the aching pain of the parents who have just lost their 18-month old baby; the 54-year-old man scrabbling in the ruins of his home after losing 5 members of his family.

For Jewish people still seared by the Holocaust, the scenes at border points and train stations of the distressed and the displaced are hard to watch. The shadows of the Shoah shroud the heart breaking scenes of mothers and children leaving behind their husbands and fathers…

Unbearable to watch. Unbelievable to witness. Unfathomable to comprehend.

In Australia, there’s the awful destruction of life and livelihoods swept away by the floods. The callous forces of nature, the damage to communities, the cost to human hearts.

We can’t always control nature despite our technological nouse. We try our best and sometimes fail miserably. We should, however, be able to control the worst and darkest impulses of the human being. We should have learned how to defy diabolical dictators. We should know better how to confront those who deliberately impose suffering on others, who care nothing for the vulnerable.

It’s easy to time like this to despair of humanity, to feel helpless in the face of havoc .

But it is precisely at times like this, the worst of times, that we can invoke the strength of the best of times. We can draw on our collective altruism and positive energy. We can and must hold onto hope. We must do whatever we can do to confront evil behaviour and to rebuild what nature has destroyed.

We say to Mr Putin:

The world has seen other dictators, we have stared them down. We will stare you down. You will account for your sins.

We say to the Ukrainian people:

Your strength and courage gives us strength and courage. We will open our hearts and our pockets to you. We will join together with the people of Hungary and Poland who have opened their borders and homes to receive your families.
We are in awe of those who have travelled hundreds of kilometres to welcome the frightened and displaced. We salute the rabbis of the Ukraine who have chosen to stay with their communities (they all have foreign passports); the Jewish communities that have opened their basements to protect strangers and citizens.
We stand in admiration for the Aussies volunteering and giving with prodigious generosity to their neighbours, to strangers.

We are bedazzled by the meteoric rise of the Maccabean Volodymyr Zelensky. If this war is about the power of one man to hold the world in fear, it is also about the power of one individual to hold out hope to humanity.

Tuesday was International Women’s Day. It is a day that celebrates women’s rights.
It is also a day that should celebrate the incredible contribution women make to the life of all of us every single day. It is often and especially at times of crisis that women are the most vulnerable. It is however, during challenging times that often women offer insights and strengths that are different to those of men. It is almost inevitably men that cause war and destruction and women who provide an alternative message.

Friday was the first day of the Hebrew month called Adar. It is the month of celebration anticipating the happiest day on the Jewish calendar-Purim, the best of days. Purim was born out of despair and desperation. As the book of Esther reminds us the Jewish people found themselves at the mercy of a powerful dictator and his diabolical advisor, hopeless in the face of their genocidal fantasies.

It was only because of a daring, painfully wise and deeply courageous woman, Esther, that disaster was averted. The power of one woman to turn the worst of times into the best of times. The potency of one. She should’ve had an international day named after her!

May this month turn the world from darkness to light, despair to hope.
May the words of the Book of Esther leap off the page and percolate humanity:
After the fearfulness ‘the Jews found light and celebration rejoicing and renewal.’