Torah from around the world #16

by Rabbi Fred Morgan, Senior Rabbi,

Temple Beth Israel

, Melbourne, Australia

For someone coming from Britain, Australia seems like an empty land, a wilderness. The great bulk of the Australian population lives within 100 kilometers of the coast, and another 100 kilometers inland  in many places brings you to the edge of the outback, the massive interior of the country in which barely a soul lives. A person can drive for a day through the outback without seeing another human being along the way except at the road houses that supply petrol, a cup of coffee and basic supplies. In some stretches of the outback even road houses are absent; there is just an endless wilderness punctuated by harsh, red outcrops, among the oldest hills and crags on earth.

It is no surprise that when white settlers first arrived in Australia from Britain and other countries near the end of the 1700s they saw the land as uninhabited. They called it

terra nullius

, a land devoid of people, empty, open for the taking. They carved it up into settlements that eventually became cosmopolitan cities like Sydney and Melbourne, and huge cattle stations the size of some European nations.

But the land was not empty. It was home to numerous indigenous tribes speaking hundreds of languages, nomadic peoples who followed the seasons in their wanderings and enjoyed rich cultures that they based on something called “the dreaming.” It was the wilderness of Australia, the seemingly endless tracts of open space and the hypnotic quality of the land, that gave birth to the dreaming of the Aboriginal people, the Koori nations.

We can see much of the same in


, the Jewish people’s experience of the great wilderness that provides the backdrop for their journeying from Mt Sinai to Mt Nebo, a journey over 38 years. The Book of


, Numbers, is the dreaming of the Jewish people.

There are some striking similarities between the Jewish people and the Aboriginal people of Australia. Two of them stand out. The first is historical: we have both been the victims of persecution. This was recognized by a Jewish lawyer, Ron Castan z”l, who was instrumental in the campaign for Aboriginal land rights. When asked about his motives, Castan explained that the experience of his own family in the Shoah compelled him to resist racism in his adoptive country and stand up for the rights of Aboriginal Australians. In reverse, it is remarkable that the only group in Australia to protest at the time against the atrocities of Kristallnacht was a group of Aboriginal activists led by a man named William Cooper. The story of William Cooper only came to light over the last decade after being buried away in a small item in the pages of the local Argus newspaper for December 1938.

The second similarity between our two peoples is theological: we are both intimately wedded to the land, the source of our dreaming. For Aboriginal people it is the land of Australia; for us Jews, it is the land of Israel.

But there is a difference between the Aboriginal dreaming and the Jewish dreaming. The difference between them defines the difference between our people and other peoples who have traversed the wilderness.

The Aboriginal dreaming maps a physical territory. It makes sense of an anonymous landscape. It enables the tribe to locate itself geographically in a land that to the untrained eye is featureless. In so doing, it renders the land, as well as the people who move through it and rely upon it for their sustenance, changeless, eternal.

The Jewish dreaming maps a moral territory, a territory of the heart and the mind.  It defines patterns of behaviour that rely for their power on the possibility of change. It looks beyond survival to redemption, to a moral taming and harnessing of the wilderness. The Jewish dreaming is not a dreaming of the past, though it draws on memory to fashion its vision of the future. It sees the wilderness not as it is but as it might be, a different sort of world, a landscape that is forgiving and accommodating to all people. The Jewish dreaming is not a map but a vision – a vision of a land in which justice and compassion are in balance, in which the harshness of nature is mitigated by the love of God reflected in the deeds of those created in the image of God.

That is the dreaming that expresses itself in the Book of


and humanises the raw, hypnotic wilderness that gives the book its title.

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