VAYESHEV 5776 5 December 2015
ON Wednesday (2nd December 2015) my wife Claire and I had a meeting with Luciana Berger the Shadow Minister for Mental Health at which we were able to put forward some of our ideas and concerns. After half an hour, Luciana told us she had to leave for a shadow cabinet security briefing at the Ministry of Defence: she did leave and we continued to talk to her head of research. When we did emerge from the meeting, we were standing in the small lobby outside her room just as the Prime Minister came striding across, followed by a large all-male entourage. He was in front with everyone else behind just like Thatcher in the “Iron Lady” film – one thing for sure – he was not a happy man – he was looking distinctly angry about something as he pursued his way.
I could not but reflect that the only previous time I had been in Portcullis House Westminster was on 9/11, 11th September 2001: I was there to attend a briefing for the Jewish community on World Poverty given by the then Minister for International Development, Clare Short. Some time into the meeting her bleep started to go off repeatedly, and she then left for an emergency cabinet meeting. As we ourselves came out we could see the newsflashes from New York on the wall mounted screens in what was then a brand new Parliament Building. The Tube and commuter trains were packed at 3.30 pm as offices closed and London went home early. Sadly so little has changed in 14 years – still the urgent security briefings, still the terror attacks against the West and above all, still the agonising about what to do. Whether Britain sending or not sending a few extra planes will make any difference seems doubtful to me, but that thought certainly did not hinder the passion and eloquence of Parliament’s top debaters. Surprisingly, it was no government minister who gave the speech of the day but the Shadow Foreign Secretary who gave the speech of a lifetime: where others were wrestling with doubt, Hilary Benn was full of certainty: we are fighting evil, he told the house and it can only be defeated by force. Listening and watching him, I found myself thinking of the Maccabees. Did they, I wonder, have such debates before they took up arms against Antiochus IV known as Epimanes, the madman? Their cause was a just one but would they win or end up getting slaughtered themselves? To a large extent, history is written by the Victors. We judge the Maccabees favourably and celebrate Chanukah every year because they managed to win. Bar Kokhba who led a rebellion against Rome 300 years later is largely forgotten because he happened to lose: after that the Jewish people tended to keep their heads down even when living under oppression and this continued for a full 1800 years until the resistance fighters and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – a hopeless upraising which could not succeed against overwhelming odds, but which (like Masada) was waged by people with nothing to lose – they were going to die anyway.
On this shabbat, with Chanukah beginning tomorrow, we read the horrible story of the brothers who sought to kill Joseph. The character of Joseph is enigmatic, hard to read: he appears to have an inner integrity and yet he is the one who brought an evil report of his brothers to their father: he is naïve, simple, trapped in a world he appears at this stage of the story not to understand: he is a late developer who only in Egypt learned to talk about dreams diplomatically, carefully, with skill and cunning. And it is that skill and cunning which leads to his family reconciliation and a peaceful end to the Book of Genesis.
Reading this story this weekend, with British planes already in action and Chanukah beginning tomorrow, leads me to reflect on what I take to be the view of the Torah, that the history of warfare began with family quarrels. Long before the Egyptians pursued the Israelites out of Egypt, long even before Abraham got caught up in the war of the four kings against the five, Cain killed Abel, and the world then became so violent that God had to destroy it. Even today, most conflict is among close groups, especially today in the Muslim world, where religious schism and difference exacerbate political tensions. Even when we witness fighting between Israelis and Palestinians we see two peoples clearly genetically close with cognate languages and similar cultures.
So where do we stand on the great issues of our time, issues of war and peace in this December gloom? These issues are raised far more poignantly and directly by our festival of Chanukah than by the Christian festival of Christmas – a festival with a wonderful and much needed message of peace and goodwill but which does not deal with the dilemmas of warfare. Perhaps what our tradition and our Parliamentary democracy both teach us is that it’s not just where we stand which matters, but that having the debate is itself important. Whether we take the pacifist line or the activist stance, we are all on the same side. And that being so, it is better to light a candle together than to curse the darkness.