‘I set before you life and good, death and evil:’ What words to read in our Torah on the date of 9/11, and before the eightieth anniversary of the Battle of Britain, marked this coming week.
Everyone of us alive then remembers where we were when we heard of the attack on the twin towers, when we switched on our televisions and saw. Our hearts not go out even now, nineteen years later, to every person trapped on those high floors, who phoned their husband, wife, children, parents, to say in whatever words they could muster: I’m going to die in minutes; I love you, love you, farewell.
Incomprehensible, that madness must have seemed; we cannot possibly imagine the bewilderment and terror. The world shook then, not just in Manhattan; and it has never felt steady since.
On 22 May 1940, soon after the Nazi invasion of Holland, Belgium and France, Guy Mayfield, chaplain to RAF Duxford near Cambridge, wrote in his diary:
Peter has been talking today…about not wanting to die yet…The heartache is to see these young men waiting to have their lives cut short….They talk to me.’
‘One hopes to keep them cheerful,’ he wrote two days later, referring to the many pilots and airbase personnel who drank and talked with him through the early hours. They knew what was coming; they didn’t assume that fate or flak would spare them. ‘Drowned it in rye and dry,’ he noted another night. ‘Prayed,’ he noted too, for the German widows too.
Peter was last seen only weeks later, bailing out of his Spitfire by the French Coast near Dunkirk, into the guns and waves.
Eighty years afterwards, we too are part of the many who owe so much to so few.
My Talmud class struggled over the words of the famous prayer:
On The New Year it is written and on The Day Of Atonement sealed…who shall live and who shall die…
I couldn’t encourage anyone to believe literally in an ‘inscriber God’ dictating the destiny of each and every person down to the very day and date to the penmanship of fate.
But I do believe in the God who writes the book of life, – although believe is not the best word. I feel you near. You are all around me; I hear you in the bird song, see you through the window in the leaves of the olive tree, the vine, the medlar fruit. When I said at dawn Modei ani lefanecha, ‘I acknowledge before you,’ it was you who woke me up, gave me, gives me life.
‘Live!’ that’s what that prayer means to me. Be on the side of life!
We don’t know if the days before us will be tens of thousands or just tens. But we can make them days of life, days of the love of life. That, too, may not always be easy, since often there are troubles are fears and depressions to fight. But it does not lie entirely beyond our power.
So that is what we must do this difficult year: strive to live and help others to live too. We shall not be on the side of death. We will be on the side of healing, in society and nature. We will take food to food banks; we will not say ‘none of my concern’ when children get to school hungry, or refugees have nothing to eat. We will look out for and look after one another. We will write, phone, email, whatsapp friends and neighbours, and risk greeting people we don’t yet know to say Shanah Tovah, here’s to a good year, in spite of the worries, despite lockdown and its limitations. We will plant trees, let meadows grow and fill the bird feeders. We will stop consuming the planet to the brink of destruction. We will serve the God of life through the service of all life.
There’s nothing better we can do to honour those who so much longed to live.