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A Bibi-mayser; the tree of Jewish life

24/02/17 15:05:29


The lines were long, the security extraordinary, the wait wearying but it was all worthwhile. I’m referring to the visit of PM Binyamin Netanyahu to Central Shul in Sydney on Wednesday. This first visit of an Israeli PM to Australia was a historic moment and replete with gravitas and a rich sense of occasion.

It wasn’t just the visit of the PM and his wife that made this special, it was the accompaniment of our PM, Malcolm Turnbull, his wife Lucy and the presence of two former prime ministers – John Howard and Tony Abbott, not to mention the Premier of NSW and leading Jewish MP’s from both sides of the house including Josh Frydenberg, Michael Danby and Mark Dreyfus.

And it wasn’t just their presence, it was the warm words of Malcolm Turnbull and his obvious ease in his electorate and at “his shul”. He clearly enjoyed the packed house and enthusiastic welcome he received. He played his audience beautifully with references to feeling at home with the “mishpocha” and rabbi of Central (Rabbi Wolff) and how lovely and “heimish” the shule was…

More significant was our PM’s strong and unapologetic support for Israel, his admiration for the Jewish community of Australia and its contribution:

“We stand with Israel

We always have, we always will”.

He referred to Israel’s role in leading the world in one of the most critical areas, that of information technology, he mentioned its “incredible chutzpah” and innovative genius. Directing his comments to the Jewish community he said “I salute and thank you for making Australia the country it is”.

PM Netanyahu is, of course, a polished and natural orator and he didn’t disappoint. He smartly avoided the controversial, referring in passing to Israel not being perfect, focusing instead on the secret of Jewish survival.

Pointing humorously to our small numbers by referring to a visit with the Chinese leadership where they were shocked that the world population of Jews was “no larger than a suburb of Beijing”, he then asserted the difference between the Chinese and the Jews: “It boils down to one thing – you kept China. We lost the land of Israel for centuries… Yet we survived, we refused to die, we were reborn again and again… In Israel (today) we define our own future, control our own destiny…” This is stirring stuff which always touches the deep gut of the Jewish psyche. I was, however, more taken by his recall of a recent response to an African leader as to Israeli (and Jewish) resilience. It was, he said, a combination of a deep regard for the past and a continual quest for the future. He drew on the analogy of a tree which has deep roots and an abundance of new branches reaching upwards and outwards. I was reminded of the Mishna from Pirkei Avot (3:22) “He (Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah) used to say: Anyone whose wisdom exceeds their good deeds, to what are they compared? To a tree which has many branches, and few roots; then the wind comes and uproots it… But one whose good deeds exceed their wisdom, to what are they compared? To a tree which has few branches but numerous roots; even if all the winds in the world were to come and buffet it, they could not budge it from its place…”

This Mishna is about the primacy of action over talk, the value of doing over cogitating. It doesn’t devalue wisdom but suggest its’ critical relationship to the practical. It is however also a comment on the significance of a deep-rooted sense of identity. Without roots we are vulnerable and apt to drift aimlessly. As Freud has suggested we are strong only if we have strong ideas. Firm roots create firm trees which are then free to spread their branches. Jews who remain rooted in tradition are best posed to branch out and contribute to the world around them. This is a critical reminder especially to young Jews today: cut off your past and you undermine your future.

Malcolm Turnbull asserted that nothing beats face-to-face contact and this was echoed by Bibi; the chemistry between them affirmed it. Panim-el-Panim פנים אל פנים (face to face) is straight out of the Torah. It’s the richest of human and Divine encounters coming face to face (well, with another 2,000….) with an Israeli PM in Sydney was a ‘cracker experience!’

It was a privilege to be in Sydney (alongside our Shule President Anthony Raitman) for this historic occasion, to hear some 2000 voices singing Hatikvah led by Chazan Shimon Farkas, to reflect on the magnificent tree of Jewish identity and statehood and its rich branches across the world.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Ralph

Tue, 14 July 2020 22 Tammuz 5780