Smile though your heart is aching

January 1, 2020 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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Sydney’s Rabbi Chaim Ingram boarded the Ovation of the Seas as he has for the last five years to conduct Chanukah candle lighting…its first voyage since the ill-fated excursion from the ship to White Island when its volcano erupted claiming 17 lives including some passengers and a crew member.

He tells his story:

Rabbi Chaim Ingram on the Ovation of the Seas last week.

Once again, I was privileged to be invited as the “cruise Rabbi” for Chanuka on the Ovation of the Seas this year.

However, this year was different. My wife and I boarded the ship a few short hours after the previous set of passengers departed with a final, heavy two-minute silence still ringing in their traumatised ears.

That cruise prior to ours had been no ordinary cruise. Seventeen people had lost their lives in the tragic White Island volcano eruption, having chosen to go on an excursion to that island offered by the ship.  Of the remaining 24 on the island, several still remain hospitalised in a critical condition.

One of the dead had been a valued crew member. Amber, my cruise program administrator with whom I have happily worked for the past five years, was understandably not her normal bouncy self during our first few days at sea. As my wife Judith observed to me (I don’t notice these things) her face was smothered with layers of make-up, no doubt to conceal her pallor.

But the show had to go on.

Many people save up for years to go on a cruise.  Amber told me she had observed this to be particularly true of the present batch of guests on our cruise.  The demographic (so she told me) was less affluent than usual, noticeable in the fact that people were spending far less onboard.  Many were possibly on a very tight budget.  For them, it would be the singular experience of a lifetime and they were determined to put the events of the previous cruise to the back of their minds and just have a good time.  And it was up to the crew members to ensure these guests had that good time.

The Ovation of the Seas Photo: Henry Benjamin/J-Wire

These crew members were still no doubt in shock.. None had had adequate counselling. But they had to put on a show. In our Torah terms of expression, they had to fulfil the mitsva of hachnasat orkhim, hospitality, and to fulfil it in a mehadrin min ha-mehadrin (superlative) manner, besimcha, with a joy they may or may not have felt.  Even at normal times, as I have written in a previous year’s essay, the equilibrium of especially the cabin and wait staff who are overworked and underpaid, is stretched to the limit   How much more so now, weighed down by the emotional burden of White Island!

But none of the staff could afford to show it.  The passengers were, to use cruise-line parlance, all VIP guests on the grandest ship of the Royal Caribbean fleet. And the crew were their selected hosts. Every one of its members had, in the words of the old Charlie Chaplin song, to smile even though their hearts may have been aching.

And as usual, indeed far more heroically than usual, they didn’t come up at all short! Our designated waiters, despite the demands of our kosher diet and our request to wrap everything in an extra layer of foil (consumer-beware note to would-be kosher cruisegoers: unlike on an aeroplane, not all caterers’ kosher meals come double-wrapped!) were constantly wreathed in smiles.  The Chasidic-style dances (did they take lessons from a Chasid?) which they did for us on selected nights in the dining-room were performed as though they were truly dancing at a wedding!   They had absolutely nothing to celebrate, yet they hid, again in Chaplin’s words, “every trace of sadness although a tear may [have] be[en] ever so near!”.

White Island volcano erupts Twitter

I tried to conjure up a Biblical parallel.  And I came up with the peerless hospitality accorded to Elisha haNavi by the Shunemite woman and her husband (II Kings 4:8-37). She too smothered the private grief and sadness she felt on having been married so long without a child and selflessly tended to the needs of a visitor she didn’t even know, only sensing that he was a spiritual VIP.

I was also reminded of two landmark Simchas Torahs I had experienced when nobody felt like dancing. The first was in 1973, during the height of the Yom Kippur War.  I was meant to have travelled to Israel on the day after Yom Kippur to yeshiva; of course, I had been bumped off my flight in deference to Israelis who needed to get back to fight, and I was in limbo. I went to stay with a Lubavitch family in Stamford Hill, London where we, in the finest outreach tradition, went to one of the local shules to try to inject ruakh.  We found the mainly senior members shuffling around with their Sifrei Torahs in their arms, morosely.  My peers (and I followed their example) placed their hands around their shoulders and smiled encouragingly. Very soon it was like a normal Simchat Torah in that shule. Privately I wondered at the time if we did the right thing. Now, looking back, I know we did.

The second occasion was 1994, my second Simchat Torah in Sydney. My Shule, Central Synagogue, had just experienced a devastating and destructive fire three days earlier. Seventeen Sifrei Torah had been destroyed. We could have been forgiven for giving up on Simchat Torah that year!  But hundreds descended on Central to show support, solidarity and love, and the result was the most electrifying Simchat Torah Central has ever experienced.

But there are also times when the slogan “the show must go on” is inappropriate. We are now in the midst of an unprecedented raging bushfire season here in Australia, It seems to me to be the height of crass insensitivity under the circumstances to have gone ahead and let off 100,000 New Year’s Eve fireworks over Sydney’s Harbour Bridge and placing unjustified additional strain upon hundreds of exhausted Rural Fire Service volunteers. I am gratified that the NSW Deputy Premier, 61 per cent of Sydney Morning Herald readers and over 250,000 ordinary Sydneysiders agreed with me. But sadly there are none so deaf as those who will not listen.

How then should we judge in what adverse circumstances to apply the motto “the show must go on” and when not to?

To my mind, the answer is easy.  When the losers in such a scenario are not us but others; when what we seek to do is not for selfish but rather for selfless ends, then, yes, the show goes on. But when what we seek to do is governed by our own hedonistic desires, as in the case of $6.5 million worth of fireworks being let off in honour of what is nothing more than a turnover date in the calendar, then let the show be cancelled and for heaven’s sake let us show a modicum of sensitivity.

On 1st January, a Jew ought to give thanks for the fact that in Judaism we have festive days and observances which are truly meaningful.

We have just finished celebrating Chanukah.  As I think back to our Chanukah lighting on the Ovation this year, I reflect:  The events of Chanukah, the rededication of the Temple, the miracle of the oil, did not mark the end of Greek domination in Judea. There were still two decades of turbulence and loss of life ahead until Simon, the last surviving Maccabee, sat securely on the throne of Judea. The Sages were in two minds whether to institute a celebration of the rededication as is evidenced by the fact that, as the Talmud informs us (Shabbat 21b), it was only “the following year” that they instituted the festival.

What swayed them?  It would appear that it was the people who clamoured to celebrate. When the Sages saw that there was an outpouring of longing to give thanks to G-D for the rededication and for the miracle of the oil, they understood that this would be no hedonistic celebration. And it was then and there that they instituted Chanukah.

And I too thanked G-D as I entered the Conference Centre on Deck 13 for our first night Chanukah lighting attended by close to 60 enthusiastic participants.  I thanked Him that, by His grace, my wife and had been separated from tragedy by a hairsbreadth – the distance from one Ovation cruise to the next. Who knows whether we would have been tempted to have taken that fateful excursion to White Island?

And I hope my emotions of gratitude and the genuine smiles they engendered were contagious and enhanced my “performance” in the service of G-D and of my fellow guests!


One Response to “Smile though your heart is aching”
  1. Pinchas Henenberg says:

    “When the losers in such a scenario are not us but others; when what we seek to do is not for selfish but rather for selfless ends, then, yes, the show goes on.”
    Surely this is mis-stated? Do you not mean when the losers are us then we may choose to have the show go on – but not when others are suffering?

    “But when what we seek to do is governed by our own hedonistic desires, as in the case of $6.5 million worth of fireworks being let off in honour of what is nothing more than a turnover date in the calendar, then let the show be cancelled”

    This seems to be confusing the issue – you have mixed sensitivity for others suffering with what you consider a meaningless celebration of New Year – for many people who do not avail themselves of any other tradition involving marking significant occasions, New Year could understandably be menaingful and not as you state “hedonistic and a turnover date..”?

    The marking of passing of time in any calendar system is noteworthy no?

    Shana Tovah!

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