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Rabbi Elton Gives AZNZAC Adress

On Anzac Day Rabbi Elton addressed the service at the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park in the presence of the Governor of New South Wales and many others. Here is his speech.


"Your Excellency, Premier Berejiklian, Mr Haines – State President of the Returned and Services League, Chief Justice, Parliamentarians, Councillors, Australian Defence Force commanders, representative of the consular corps, faith leaders, honoured veterans.

It is my privilege to give this year’s Anzac Address, as a Rabbi representing the Jewish community. My predecessor as Chief Minister of The Great Synagogue, Rabbi Francis Lyon Cohen took part in the dedication of the Anzac Memorial in 1934 and he and his successors served as Chaplains to serving men and women of our Defence Forces, and to veterans. I am proud to stand in that tradition as the Jewish Chaplain to the New South Wales branch of the Returned and Services League.

In this year of 2017 we are in the midst of First World War anniversaries. Three years ago we marked the centenary of the outbreak of War, two years ago Gallipoli, last year the Battle of the Somme and next year the Armistice and the end of the War. The year 1917 was certainly not without incident, including the entry of the United States, and the capture of Beersheba by the Australian Light Horse, which the Australian Jewish community will be marking later in the year. But in contrast to other years, from the point of view of Australia and New Zealand at least, in 1917 there was no single event that stands out.

Perhaps that should be the very focus of our thoughts in 2017. This may be the year to turn our minds, not to the major events that are usually commemorated: this or that particular battle or incident, but the day-to-day slog of war. The Bible well understood the pressures and demands of the long periods between exceptional events.

Like today’s armed forces, the ancient Israelite army was also served by military chaplains, by a Priest, who was specially anointed for the role. The Book of Deuteronomy records this instruction:

When you come close to battle, the priest shall approach and speak to the people, and shall say to them: 'Hear, O Israel, you are coming close to doing battle against your enemies; let not your heart faint; fear not, do not be alarmed, do not be afraid of them; for the Lord your God goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.

The reassurance, the moral and spiritual support, provided by the Priest, did not take place in the thick of the battle – there is rarely time for it then – it came as the army was assembling, as it was preparing, and it was waiting for events to unfold. These were times of great anxiety, fear and trepidation. The long hours, days and weeks between an offensive or a retreat, before or after an attack or defence, can be just as challenging for the men and women doing their duty, as times of direct danger. As John Milton wrote, ‘they also serve who only stand and wait’. The standing and the waiting can be as testing and as challenging as any other endeavour.

If we turn our minds back to 1917, we recall that soldiers who found themselves in the trenches of the Western Front had to live outside for weeks on end, with limited shelter from the elements: biting cold, cutting wind, rain, sleet and snow in the winter and the burning heat of the sun in the summer. They were surrounded by soul numbing desolation; a landscape destroyed by war. There could be lakes of mud, rats, endless noise from artillery and machine gun fire, hunger, dirt, infestation, disease, monotony and crushing boredom punctuated by apprehension.

When men were relieved from the Front, for periods of so-called respite, there was no real rest; if they were officers they faced mountains of paperwork, reading and training. If they were rank and file soldiers they were given back-breaking physical labour, often dealing with the dead, dying and wounded, with all of the trauma which that entailed. As the Bible teaches, coming close to battle, let alone battle itself, requires courage and fortitude.

I share this account by a Vietnam veteran which sums up the challenge:

I remember the monotony. Digging foxholes. Slapping mosquitoes. The sun and heat and endless paddies. Even deep in the bush, where you could die any number of ways, the war was nakedly and aggressively boring. But it was a strange boredom. It was boredom with a twist that caused stomach disorders. […] Well, you'd think, this isn't so bad. And right then you'd hear gunfire behind you and you'd be squealing pig squeals. That kind of boredom.

Our debt to the Australian and New Zealand men and women who took part in conflicts over the past century and longer, includes our gratitude that they endured those experiences and remained ready, willing and able, when the time came, to press forward. It also devolves a responsibility upon us to care for service men and women who were affected by the totality of their time at war, and not just in combat, simply and narrowly understood.

That is our continuing moral duty. On this Anzac Day let us renew our commitment to uphold it, and to recognise and honour the contribution of all those who served and endured, revere the memory of those who perished and support those who returned. May their service continue to inspire us all."