Address by Rabbi Raymond Apple at the NSW ANZAC Day service, Hyde Park, Sydney, 25 April, 1974
Anzac Day is an occasion for remembrance. It is a day for retrospect. Unforgettable experiences are relived. Comrades and heroes and martyrs are recalled. Deep-felt emotions find expression, stirred by the gatherings at the dawn hour, by the marches, the music, the flags and the reunions.
Yet there are some who remain unmoved by Anzac Day. Young people, especially, are impatient with this day and its events. They rarely have time for the retrospect and reminiscence, the exchange of anecdote and the stirring of memories, which come instinctively on days such as this. To them such activities are embarrassing if not rather ridiculous. They of course did not live through the experiences which Anzac Day commemorates and they cannot be expected to feel with their fathers’ hearts or reflect with their fathers’ minds. But their impatience with Anzac Day it not just a reflection of the generation gap. Their criticism goes deeper.
They know, as we do, that war is no social excursion embarked upon light-heartedly and light-headedly. War is the most serious, the most tragic, the most shameful invention of the human race. It is only when men come sadly and reluctantly to the conclusion that there is no other alternative, that they contemplate war, with trembling awareness of its potential consequences, in order to defend hallowed principles, cherished standards, and inalienable human rights. But sensible men realise that winning a war is not in itself adequate. It can become a ghastly mockery if it is not followed by building a new and better society.
The Biblical Noah faced a challenge that was remarkably similar. He was charged with rebuilding civilisation after a period of devastation. But what happened? His good intentions died almost at their very birth. He drank himself into a stupor and forgot he had a task to do.
Young people accuse us too of having failed in the responsibility of reconstructing our world in the postwar decades. Not a day has passed in all those years without a threat, great or small, to the principles of individual conscience, human brotherhood, social justice and universal freedom. But so often we have retreated, as did Noah, into a stupor of selfishness, and have failed to raise our voices and to rouse others to exercise compassion, conscience and courage. If our youthful critics are right, it would appear that, facing a post-war future in circumstances of unique opportunity, we have, with moral negligence, let the opportunity lightly slip through our fingers and because of our default, allowed evil to spread almost unchecked.
No wonder a contemporary writer has said:
“Everything modern man has touched has turned to ashes; every achievement of his has been transformed before his very eyes into a demonic force of destruction. His marvels of organisation have taken form in organised despotism, organised slavery, organised mass-murder; his visions of permanent peace, in a succession of world wars; his fervent hopes of freedom, in universal regimentation and totalitarian dictatorship; his dreams of brotherhood and social justice, in the reign of terror, naked and unashamed…”
What should man have been doing, what should he have begun to achieve? He should have been striving to construct a very different picture, in which: “Everything modern man has touched has turned to blessing; everything that could bring destruction has been turned to peaceful ends. His marvels of organisation have ensured that all men equally enjoy rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; his visions of permanent peace that wars are banished from the minds of men; his fervent hopes of freedom, that freedom of speech and worship, freedom from fear and want, prevail everywhere; his dreams of brotherhood and social justice, that tolerance and understanding are universal.”
This is still far from the reality of the human situation. We have achieved something but not nearly enough. We have wasted many a crucial opportunity. But time has not yet run out. With effort, much can yet be achieved. We who live safely must learn to feel for others. When blood is spilt and innocent lives are menaced and destroyed, when some regimes discriminate against and victimise those who seek only to claim basic human rights, when acts of defiant violence are carried out by lawless terrorists, we must stir ourselves and learn to respond with concern and moral courage. We must overcome the tendency to harden our hearts so that we cannot feel the pain of those who suffer. We must overcome the tendency to want to sit back and make no protest other than a squeak and a silent prayer that the scourge may not come near our part of the world.
We must learn to build up human relationships so strongly and firmly that war becomes unthinkable. And you achieve this by developing understanding, trust and concern between nations; between every group in society; and on the most basic level of all, in daily life, between one individual and his fellow.
Anzac Day reminds us that men who go through war together develop a fierce stubborn sense of comradeship, and a good-humoured easy tolerance of others. A comrade is a comrade no matter what his background, his religion or his politics. In peacetime we need to recapture this sense of comradeship. We need to learn to say, in the moving words found in the books of Jewish ethical wisdom:
“I am a creature of God, and my neighbour is also His creature.
My work is in the city, and his is in the field.
I rise early to my work, and he rises early to his.
As he cannot excel in my work, so I cannot excel in his work.
But perhaps you say: I do great things, but he does small things?
We have learnt that it matters not that a man does much or little,
If only he directs his heart to Heaven.”
What is Anzac Day – to be-hollow pageantry, platitudinous piety, and army anecdotage, or honest soul-searching, firm dedication, and courageous acceptance of challenge?
Are we to say that the moral courage of the past, the willing readiness even to sacrifice, and the ability to dream dreams and see visions, have vanished with the passing of the years?
Are we to say that our nerve has deserted us, and we would prefer to be like Noah and forget our responsibility to our children and our children’s children?
Are we to say that the motto of Anzac Day has become “Lest we remember” – and that we now neither wish to, or can, remember the good intentions with which we once thought we would reconstruct man and his world?
Cannot this Anzac Day redirect us to the path of life, that we may live, and our world’ may live, and everything we touch may turn to blessing?