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Parashat Hashavua for Vayechi

Parashat Hashavua for Vayechi

Cantor Michel Laloum
Temple Beth Israel

In this week’s parashah, we’re still following Jacob’s life, and some of what he experienced resonates with what many Australians must be experiencing right now. Australia has always been a country of extremes: Dorothea Mackellar’s beloved poem My Country captures "her beauty and her terror" most eloquently, and her words remain as true today as they were when she wrote them:

Core of my heart, my country!
Her pitiless blue sky,
When sick at heart, around us,
We see the cattle die -
But then the grey clouds gather,
And we can bless again
The drumming of an army,
The steady, soaking rain.

Core of my heart, my country!
Land of the Rainbow Gold,
For flood and fire and famine,
She pays us back threefold -
Over the thirsty paddocks,
Watch, after many days,
The filmy veil of greenness
That thickens as we gaze.

Jacob fled Canaan to Egypt at a time of extreme drought.  He sought shelter in Egypt and his people prospered; his tribe of 70 souls flourished and became a multitude. But even after doing well there, his heart wanted to return to his homeland, despite its hardships, and he made his sons promise to bury him in the Promised Land. 

It’s a similar sentiment expressed throughout Mackellar’s poem; despite all the hardships and extremes, it’s the country she loves:

Though earth holds many splendours,
Wherever I may die,
I know to what brown country
My homing thoughts will fly. 

As the country burns around us - so far 8.9 million hectares have burnt, many would empathise with Jacob and his family seeking shelter somewhere where life wasn’t so hard.  With thousands of "thirsty paddocks" across the drought-stricken states, for how many months and years have farmers been hand-feeding their stock, only to see them die in these raging bushfires?  How many farmers have worked for decades growing trees which have been completely consumed?  How many houses, containing memories and a lifetime of work and savings have been burnt to the ground? And most importantly, how many lives have been lost, animal and human, and will be lost before the fires are brought under control?

Despite all the terrible things going on around him in Canaan, Jacob’s family escapes and not only survives but flourishes. The parashah is one of hope.  Even though his descendants faced hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt, their persecution and hardships forged a people out of a tribe of 70, and is the creation story of the people of Israel.  If we look at everything happening in Australia at present, I am reminded of a quote from the famous American children’s entertainer Mr Rogers: When there is something terrible happening “look for the helpers”.  His mother used to tell him to do this and it’s worth reflecting on as we see such utter devastation around us and the country enveloped in smoke so thick that Canberra was reported the most polluted city on earth today.  Everywhere there are people working tirelessly, volunteering as firefighters and putting themselves in harm’s way; SES volunteers are on the fire grounds and in the background providing support, charities are working overtime to support those affected and displaced; strangers have opened their homes to families who have lost there homes; people are offering agistment in their paddocks for livestock; and thousands of people and vets are fostering native and other animals in need of rehabilitation ... a ray of hope, or a spark of Godliness.    

There is a lot of anger about these fires and that’s to be expected when emotions are so raw and the situation is as bad as it is.  There is time enough for us to investigate the cause of these fires and what has made them so much worse than in previous years, even years preceded by drought. For now, we need to try to hold onto hope and remember these statistics - how many hectares, how many homes, all refer to people, wildlife, livestock and our forests.  We need to keep our humanity and look for ways to practice tikkun olam – repairing our world.  And pray for the “drumming of an army, the steady, soaking rain.”

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