2 August, 2014

The other day, as I woke up and switched on the radio, I heard these words: “The clamour from round the world for Israel to stop its attacks on Gaza grows louder by the day.” (BBC Radio 4, 30th July 2014). Not a great start to the day, I thought.

This is that saddest shabbat in the Jewish calendar, the shabbat before Tisha Be’Av, the day of mourning for Jewish suffering through the ages. In Jeremiah’s poems of lament, called in Hebrew Megillat Eichah, you can hear sounds of suffering every bit as poignant as those we can hear echoing round the world today: The tongue of the sucking child cleaves to the roof of his mouth for thirst: infants ask for bread, and none can break it for them: those who ate delicacies are desolate in the streets: those who were brought up in scarlet hug the refuse heaps. That’s not a BBC report: it’s Eichah 4: 4-5. Just like the reporters today, Jeremiah picked out children as the most moving symbols of suffering. There are far too many places in the world where children cannot sleep in their beds without fear of attack: I speak not only of Gaza, but of Syria, of Lybia, of Iraq, of South Sudan, of the Central African Republic, and of course of Israel, still under fire from rocket attacks, and now mourning its dead and wounded in conflict. Between 2005 and 2016, over 70 thousand children were killed across 25 world conflicts.  Many more have been orphaned, seriously injured or permanently disabled and over ten million or left with serious psychological trauma. Children are forced to serve in armies, and can be victims of abuse and sexual violence. Well might we cry, with the psalmist, “AD ANA How long Adonai will you forget forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalms 13:1). Messages I’ve seen in the last few days written by children in conflict zones describe that feeling exactly – how much longer? Why has the world forgotten us?

Today, as we come close to Tisha Be’Av, we begin the book of Deuteronomy, the book which will take us through to Simchat Torah in October. Is it not strange that we always begin this account of Moses review of forty years of history just before Tisha Be’Av? Would it not be more sensible to begin it next week, as the season of consolation begins? It’s as if, even on the threshold of disaster, we are already looking forward, planning what has to come next. It’s as if even before the catastrophe, there are plans for rebuilding. However tough are the ways of the world, there have to be plans to carry on: however deep the mire, and this weekend it seems to be getting even deeper, we know the work of reconstruction will have to begin, and begin soon.

In this week’s portion Moses reminds the people why they’ve been wandering in the desert for forty years. Twelve men, he tells them, had gone up into the mountains, reached the valley of Eshkol and brought back fruit to show them how good the land was. But the people would not listen to them and refused to go. Today, the Eshkol Regional Council area in Israel lies just to the west of Gaza, and in the town of Eshkol a few days ago four people were killed and nine wounded in a rocket attack from Gaza. So strange the way history echoes. In the Torah, there is a subtle twist in the way Moses recounts the incident of the spies. Although all twelve spies brought back fruit, ten of them added that the land was occupied by giants – oversized people to go with the oversize fruit. It’s those ten spies that the people listened to. Moses here places the blame not on those ten spies but on the whole people. Why? He seems to be saying that the blame lies not only with those who twisted the media report, but with those who took notice of it. We each have a responsibility to look behind the headlines and find out more. And when we do that, we cannot but be aware of the suffering on both sides of a conflict: and when we see that, we cannot avoid the desire to reach out, to offer a helping hand, to be able to turn to a new page even on the threshold of disaster. So let’s rephrase the quote from the BBC with which I began, and read it more positively as “the clamour of the world for peace grows louder by the day.” Acting together, the world can bring peace to troubled places, can bring back the right of children to grow up without fear.

And so to Isaiah. He too had seen it all, as this week’s haftarah bears witness: (1: 7-8) Your country is desolate; your cities are burned with fire; your land strangers devour it in your presence… and the daughter of Zion is left as a sukkah in a vineyard, and a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city. Notice how even in this battle hardened imagery there is the sound of hope and of peace, the righteous remnant who will remain. Just as we turn this week from Numbers to Deuteronomy, from the book of wandering to the book of words, so we turn from Jeremiah to Isaiah, the prophet of doom to the prophet of hope. In the traditional cycle, every haftarah from now to Rosh HaShanah comes from Isaiah. The “daughter of Zion” is Jerusalem. Only a tiny area round Jerusalem will remain. What is the remedy? Isaiah’s message is clear, and makes this a specially appropriate reading for this week: (1:17) Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice. Aid the wronged, Uphold the rights of the orphan, plead for the widow. In the UK, plans for the welfare state did not wait till after the end of the second world war, but were formulated while the war was still being fought. Isaiah too spoke to a generation at war. He proclaimed not just a peaceful society, but a just one too, knowing that the two are inextricably intertwined. It’s time that the world’s clamour became a mighty roar, determined to bring peace and social justice to all in the Middle East. Let us, like Isaiah, look forward beyond the season of lamentation to a season of consolation, when the talk will be no longer of a just war but of a just peace. Even at a time of conflict, we have to think beyond the next few days.


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