One of the more accessible elements of the rabbinic literature is PIRKE ABBOT, a collection of maxims, proverbs, pithy sayings and principles of early post-biblical sages. Literally translated, Pirke Abbot should be ‘Chapters of the Fathers’, but ‘Ethics’ is generally preferred. By curious chance ‘Abbot (fathers)’ is a homonym of ‘Abbott’ (Prime Minister of Australia).
Pirke Abbot makes lively reading. It includes some very golden rules
for living. Such are the maxims of Rabbi Hillel, a sage beloved for
his humanity. He wrote: ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself what am I? And if not now, when?’
My nine-year old grandson Miles, much troubled by predictions of a
world where temperatures would rise and life be threatened, noted our
government’s anaemic response to the matter and wrote to the Prime
Minister echoing Hillel – if not now, when?
‘Dear Mister Abbott’, he wrote, ‘Please protect our planet before we
run out of water and every living thing will die.’
Mister Abbott, as befitting the Father of his country, wrote back to
the child he’d sworn to protect:
Thank you for taking the time to write to me. It is a very good thing that you are
interested in the wellbeing of our country. I hope you will continue
to show this interest in the future.’
The letter was signed (in ink), ‘Tony Abbott.’
Miles was not reassured.
“Mummy, he did not even mention the environment and what he was going to do about it.”
When Abbott succeeded Turnbull as leader of the Liberals, I felt
Australian politics might become more interesting. Here was something
novel, a potential prime minister who happened to be a conscience
politician. Noting Abbott’s sincerely held opposition to abortion and
the unpopularity he had courted in his restriction – on principle – of
an ‘abortion drug’ much sought by both doctors and patients, I
thought, ‘Well, I don’t like his politics, I don’t think he’ll last
long, I don’t much like his style, but I respect these signs of
integrity.’ Meanwhile the urgers in the Murdoch press drooled in a
chorus of relief at the eclipse of Turnbull and of the climate.
Of course, I had misjudged Tony. Moralistic but never simply moral, he
achieved a professional politician’s capacity for the flexible
backflip. His ‘style’ flowered into an idiosyncratic misreading of the
public mind that robbed the poor to enrich the already rich; and
culminated in advising the woman whose job it is to create knights to
dub her husband, a non-Australian, Knight of the Order of Australia.
At this stage the public gasped in disbelief, Abbott’s own party
gagged and even the Murdoch Urgers looked about for a successor to
anoint. Commentators commented – that’s what I am doing now – and we
all had a wonderful time frothing at the inevitable (if not imminent)
fall of this man of hubris.
Enter another grandson, Joel, aged nearly four: fresh off the plane
after three years’ exile in Britain this young citizen observed the
image of Tony Abbott appearing day after day for on the front page of
He asked: ‘Who is that man, Mummy?’
‘He is the man the people of Australia chose to look after us, darling.’
‘Why is his picture in the paper?’
‘People are feeling cross at him.’
‘You know how people in this family try to be kind to each other?
Well, people feel cross at that man because he hasn’t been kind to the
people he should look after.’
[At this stage I need to inform the reader of the Corrections
Protocols operating in Joel’s household: in the case that one child
having many toys withhold a toy he isn’t using from his smaller
sister, who then purloins said toy; and that older child then belt the
younger, the older child’s conduct is designated as ‘not kind’; and
that elder child is directed to take some time out. He is sent to the
staircase where he must sit and reflect upon his unkind action until
he feel ready to seek forgiveness and make amends]
Joel, regarding the image of the Prime Minister pictured descending
his aircraft’s steps in Canberra, said: ‘That man needs to go to the
In the event, ignoring Hillel’s second clause of selflessness, the PM
followed only the sage’s first clause: ‘If I am not for myself, who
will be for me?’ He brought forward the party room meeting to deprive
plotters of time to plot. His party met and voted him not time out but
more time in.
Abbott vowed he would change. He’d listen. He’d become consultative.
Good government would ‘start today.’ No-one believed he could change.
I do not believe he can. But how miraculous would it be to witness
such change, how interesting to watch a small spirit grow and enlarge
and show kindness?