This week is AJEX Shabbat, followed on Sunday by the Jewish Military Association’s solemn commemoration. Whitehall is closed, service and ex-service men and women march by, as do their children wearing their parent’s medals in their honour. Over 120,000 Jews have served in the country’s armed forces.
But Sunday is also Mitzvah Day, a wonderful, creative and constructive response to the memory, and reality, of war.
Over the last years I’ve had the privilege of reciting the memorial prayer at the Cenotaph. I’ve found this humbling and intensely moving. Like so many of us, my grandfather and my father served, though in different armed forces. My wife’s uncle Sonny was killed supplying arms with the RAF to the French resistance. Jews, alongside other faith groups and minorities, have made immense contributions to this country, in war as well as in peace.
For those of us who’ve grown up since WW2, war in Europe had seemed a long way off. Not so now. Like others hosting families from Ukraine, Nicky and I wonder: do we leave the daily paper open, with the latest grim, or somewhat better, news? What immediate fears will the pictures bring when they come down for breakfast? It’s probably an idle question, as they speak to the men back in Kharkiv every day.
Here in the UK we are not faced with the constant threat of sudden death from bombs deliberately targeted at civilian infrastructures, something all too familiar to the generation who remember the V1s and V2s. We aren’t about to find on the outskirts of our towns and villages the half-concealed evidence of atrocities.
But war’s effects are all too clear. It wrecks the all-important works of peace. Farmlands are destroyed (We had eleven apricot trees, three produced really large fruits, all bombed, all bombed, ‘our’ grandmother said.) Grain from Ukraine’s rich black earth doesn’t reach the world’s poorest. Even in wealthy countries, rising prices push millions over the edge into destitution. Teachers in Birmingham say one child in three now lives in poverty. Richer nations are saying they can’t or won’t make the payments essential to help the planet’s most vulnerable nations minimise and adapt to climate change.
I’m sorry to write such horrible things but they weigh on the heart.
But they made me notice what I hadn’t properly taken in before: how, in the small siddurim, the grey-covered prayerbooks issues to His Majesty’s Armed Forces, the memorial prayers are followed immediately by verses full of longing for ‘the works of peace.’ They remind me that every Amidah, every single one of Judaism’s thrice-daily petitions, concludes with a prayer for peace. We must never take it for granted; it’s the most immeasurable blessing.
Late last night, unable to sleep, I went downstairs to fetch Isaac Rosenberg’s collected works. In a poem of 1917 he wrote how, returning from action, he and his men suddenly hear
But hark! Joy – joy – strange joy,
Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks.
Music showering our upturned list’ning faces.
Death could drop from the dark / As easily as song –
But song only dropped
Our hearts go out to those like him who longed for peace but never lived to see it.
On their behalf, we must rededicate ourselves to the works of peace, to everything which Mitzvah Day upholds, caring across the boundaries of our communities, cooking, planting, giving, doing everything we can to make that peace as real, as lasting and as deep as we possibly can.