Candle Lighting 12:00am

13th December | 25 Kislev

13 Dec, 2017 | 25 Kislev, 5778

Looking back with love

Friday, 17 November 2017 | 28 Heshvan, 5778


In 1956 a young British playwright wrote a play that is said to have changed the face of modern drama. The playwright was John Osborne and the play was a verbal barrage on a wide range of topics from the class system to family, sexuality to religion. It was ferocious and unrestrained and apparently set the scene for a new cultural movement and the libertine 1960’s.

I was thinking of the play this week (which I studied at Uni) not only for the way it opened a new style in British and possibly contemporary theatre, but also because of its title: Look Back in Anger. I thought of it because I’ve been looking back, not only at ten years as senior rabbi of Caulfield Shule, but also some thirty years in the rabbinate. Looking back can be a perilous exercise: what do you focus on? Do you dredge up some of the disappointments and failures, the could-have-beens and should-have-beens? Do you give time to the bruising encounters and difficult characters? Or do you focus exclusively on the positive and productive? I’ve never been one to spend too much time looking back in anger. It’s generally a futile exercise and leaves you like Lot’s wife, with a bitter, salty taste on your tongue. But despite being an optimist, I’ve also avoided the sentimentalised rose-coloured idealisation of the past; after all as Franklin Adams put it ‘nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory’. If we don’t learn from the past we are bound to repeat its mistakes.

It all comes down to the old truism that balance is what matters most, Aristotle identified virtue as being the means between the two extremes and Rambam called it the  שביל הזהב, the golden path of moderation. And so with nostalgia and reflection, it’s worth pausing to celebrate the achievements but not losing sight of the lessons learned along the way.

I certainly look back with pride and gratification to the past ten years at Caulfield Shule and to the role I’ve played in bringing this community back from strife to success, from bridges to building. I’m filled with appreciation for what we’ve achieved in placing our shule firmly back at the heart of Jewish life in Melbourne – a Modern Orthodox Centre of energy and vitality, learning (from Daf Yomi to academic series) connection (from Bubs to inkr572 to Shmoozedays Seniors) connectedness (all those rousing musical services and tefillot) and compassion (our pastoral endeavours, Darchei Shalom and Shofar in the Park).

A leader is only as good as those who work together with him and I’ve been privileged for most of the ten years to have Dov Farkas as my superb shule partner, several very able and talented Presidents, Vice Presidents and hardworking Boards, a high power Rabbinic team that shape our endeavours, Rabbis Krasnjanski, Heilbrunn and Levin and youth leaders of the highest calibre, most recently Eli Solomon. Yael Garkawe came with me from Mount Scopus College and has been a personal fortress of capability and confidentiality. Our administration Sharon, Alida, Michelle, Janna, Simona and Rachel, make my life so much easier with their humour, good sense and great work ethic.

A leader is also only as good as those he leads. You are a congregation of Australia’s best! You challenge and criticise, you praise and support, you give so generously of yourselves, you give so warmly of your time, money and energy. I love leading this community and constantly say “Modeh Ani” Thank God for giving me this opportunity!

Yes, I do sometimes look back with disappointment and even anger, but I have the disposition that Pirkei Avot calls ‘slow to anger and quick to forgive’ so I generally and genuinely forget the broiges and fareebles, the harsh words and unfair encounters! I try to forgive when regret is expressed and forgiveness is genuinely sought. I hope my detractors and critics will learn from or exercise the same spirit!

And, as I have become a “zaken” a greybeard (or at least a salt and pepper one), I’ve become more comfortable and confident to express my views from the environment to refugees, religion to sexuality. I try to avoid the over-simplification of our sound-byte culture, the laziness of black and white thinking. The Torah’s deep understanding of the moral complexity of being human is what guides me, God’s grace and forgiveness is what informs me. And Judaism’s powerful embrace of “VeAhavta” (“You shall love”) is what drives both my passion and compassion.

Finally my capacity to be a leader continues to be strengthened and refined through my “ezer kenegdo”, Caron, and my loving rambunctious family Eyal, Carly & Ezra, Daniella and Yoni as well as my circle of singular friends.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Ralph