Jews live now in the period known as “the 10 days of repentance”, that time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, when, it is said, our fate for the next year will be determined. This is our opportunity to repent for our misdeeds over the past year and to atone and seek forgiveness from those we have offended, whether knowingly or unknowingly.

Our god, we are told, is full of mercy and compassion.  He will forgive us if we ask for it and do tshuvah, literally a returning , a returning to the ways of god. To the righteous way.

When considering this, in the midst of Melbourne’s sixth lockdown, with no real end in sight and with escalating numbers of infections, one has cause to stop and consider: what is the meaning of compassion? For it seems to me, if one aspect of our lives, one attribute, that has almost disappeared in the last 18 months it is compassion.

When our borders were slammed shut last year we were told that all those Australians who wished to return home should do so immediately. Then we were told that they could all be home by Christmas (2020). It became apparent though, pretty soon, that in fact many of  those who wished to return home actually couldn’t. They had lives and jobs, leases and other commitments which meant they couldn’t just pick up and in a moment return home. Most, not surprisingly, thought that they would be able to return home later in the year, after, for example, their job contract finished or their lease expired. They were however, variously shocked, astonished and dumbfounded to learn that flights home were either impossible to get or mind numbingly expensive, or both. Even if they managed to obtain a flight, many were bumped due to reasons bound up with hotel quarantine.

You would think that “right minded” people would be sympathetic to those stranded, some of whom were told, apparently by DFAT, when they had no money and no home, that they could go to a homeless shelter. But the outpouring of vitriol and spite against them knows no bounds. Compassion seemingly went astray. “They shouldn’t have left”, or “they should have returned sooner” or “why should we care about them because they will bring in Corona”, are just some examples of the words thrown about. What use is your Australian passport if you cannot return home, let alone leave? Closed borders? Exit permits?

Then we have the encouragement to dob in. Dobbing in your neighbour has always been regarded as a very un- Australian characteristic. We looked askance at East Germany where the STASI took informing against neighbour, friend or family to a high art. That could never happen here. … or so we thought. But here we have governmental encouragement to dob in anyone apparently not complying with a health order.  Many are the stories  I have heard of those who have been dobbed in: the man whose flat mate returned home and was dobbed in for having someone in the flat; the man whose (permitted) bubble partner came to visit, the café owner who was eating breakfast in his own café, the café owner who had nailed the outdoor tables to the pavement and was accused of table service when those waiting for their take away rested on the tables. The stories are many but the unifying factor is the same: Australians are very keen to dob in their neighbour.  It is clear that if the conditions are right anyone can become an informer.

Then we have what happened to the “tower people” in the middle of Melbourne’s 2020 lockdown when those unfortunates living in the housing commission towers were unceremoniously locked down with no notice. There was no understanding that giving people no notice in circumstances when they were most unlikely to have food and supplies was cruel in the extreme. That, coupled with a large police presence but no social workers or provision of appropriate food, might actually be a breach of their human rights. Wherefore compassion there? Again, nowhere to be found.

Then we have governmental bureaucratic cruelty. We have the “Queensland hospitals are for Queenslanders”.  We have the endless stories about people being unable to visit sick or dying parents or children, despite being variously double vaccinated, in possession of negative PCR tests and willing (when appropriate) to quarantine. These people locked out by nameless bureaucratic zealots who make a mastery out of their singular lack of compassion. We have the school boarders who can’t return home and isolate at their farms out in the middle of nowhere. We hear endless stories too of children stuck overseas and separated from their parents and who are unable to get home. The stories are varied but the theme is the same: lack of compassion.

Many things have been lost over COVID, but the one to me, that stands out the most is this lack of compassion coupled with  those making a virtue of out a willingness to dob.

We read about the god of mercy who sits on high. He must be wondering about the humans down below, who seemingly have lost their way.

As we head into the last of the 10 days and beyond, I urge everyone to exercise compassion, to exercise kindness, for, if not now, then when?

Article by Author/s
Debbie Wiener
Deborah Wiener is a Melbourne barrister, writer and human rights advocate. She also has a passion for taking pictures of lions, which sadly, is on hold for the moment.

4 Comments

  1. Debbie,
    Having contributed a couple of essays to Jewish Women of Words, I am pleased to receive updates. Many thanks for your commentary about the lack of compassion in Australia. I am in the US and the word “dob” is new to me. Also, I was not aware of your particular challenges.

    On the advice of a poet, I have been reading the same poem every morning for a month. The poem I chose this month is called “Kindness.” In addition to the religious teachings you mention, I think you will appreciate it: https://poets.org/poem/kindness

    All very best,
    Carol Bergman

    • debbie wiener Reply

      Thank you Carol. I only just saw your comment now (:
      Dob is a particular Australian expression I believe, meaning to report on someone, a la Stasi.
      I will read the poem you suggested.
      Thanks again,
      Debbie

  2. A recent Parsha, Ki Tavo, emphasises the importance of living for and in community – this, as communicated by Moses when the people of Israel were about to enter the Land of Israel for the first time, is the true essence of Judaism. Not dobbing, but doing. Not pointing a finger, but lifting a finger.

    Delivered for parshat Ki Tavo at the online Kabbalat Shabbat service for Ayelet Shachar – Sydney on 27 August 2021:

    Ki Tavo describes a situation remarkably similar and different to a situation we face every day. The differences are more than just differences in time and place. For us as a Jewish community, they are differences that transcend time, and offer us hope in the most difficult of times.

    Ki Tavo means ‘when you arrive’, and describes the moment that the people of Israel, having left Egypt and wandered in the desert, are about to enter the land of Israel at last. Their leader – Moses – stands before them, making announcements and giving instructions that will determine their day to day life from now on – and their future.

    Sound familiar? Did you wait this morning for Gladys and Brad, or Dan, or that tough cookie in Queenland, to share their prohibitions and their pessimism? Did you hear from them the fate that would result from compliance, and the even worse fate from non-compliance?

    Moses, as he stood before the people of Israel on the threshold of their first entry into the promised land, gave some stern orders, but bound up in those orders were promises of reward. He said:

    “You shall, today, hearken to God and promise to keep all God’s laws. Today, God said that you shall be a people belonging to God alone.”

    And, if the Israelites didn’t follow the rules, he said, then “[C]urses will come upon you and overtake you.”

    And there’s something far too prophetic for our comfort about that curse, because he says,

    “God will send to you plagues and sufferings and sicknesses that are evil and enduring.”

    In addition, Moses places a curse on anyone who doesn’t act in a socially responsible way.

    Do not deprive others of their rights, he says: “Cursed is he who moves the boundary marker of his neighbour.”

    Woe to you if you take advantage of people who are vulnerable, he says: “Cursed is he who misleads a blind man, or twists what is rightfully due to an orphan or stranger or widow.”

    Violence, too, is prohibited: “‘Cursed is he who strikes down his neighbour.”

    But Moses also gives the people of Israel hope for a much better future, which is certainly something we don’t hear from Glad, Dan and Brad in their morning warnings these days. He gives hope for the long game: he promises spiritual protection, and growth and unity as a people.

    He says: “God will place you high above all the nations God has created. You will be a proclamation for God’s Name and for God’s glory. You shall be a holy people to God.”

    To achieve this, Moses says, we need to be mindful of community and our responsibility towards it. He doesn’t give us the current warning that we care best for our community when we distance ourselves from them. Instead, he reminds us of the importance of sharing apportion of your food and your earnings with those less fortunate. He says that when the people of Israel have planted their crops and the harvest has come, they should start paying the tithe – their social welfare tax.

    “You shall give portions,” he says, “to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. They shall eat it within your gates and be satisfied.”

    So yes, move over Gladys and Dan. Ki Tavo teaches what our premiers could learn from our prophets. Give people hope for a secure future, and pride in who they are, and emphasise the importance of social responsibility.

    And then the curses will fall away and the future will be good.

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