As we say farewell to the Pesach dishes and pack away for another year the memories they evoke, I try to carry with me the words of Isaiah with which the festival readings conclude:
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea. (11:9)
It’s my favourite biblical verse. It concludes Isaiah’s vision of a time when nation no longer predates on nation and one sector of humanity no longer devours another, symbolised by the wolf lying down peacefully with the lamb. (But not, as my Bible teacher stressed, every night a different lamb).
If only the world were like that!
But Isaiah’s world wasn’t like that either. His vision is set in a city under siege; the all-powerful Assyrian armies have laid the land waste and are now so close to Jerusalem that he sees them shaking their fists at Zion from the tops of the surrounding mountains. Resistance is surely futile; logic dictates that defeat is imminent.
Yet it’s in precisely those circumstances that the prophet envisages a different reality. He doesn’t abandon hope; he doesn’t renege on the belief in a world governed by God’s spirit, with God-given wisdom, where the cause of the poor is upheld in righteousness.
‘You may say (he’s) a dreamer,’ but what motivates Isaiah is not phantasy but faith. His hope, moral courage and determination are utterly inspiring, and we need them desperately today.
And Isaiah’s ‘not the only one.’ Monday night brings Yom HaShoah, the date set by Israel’s parliament for remembering the Nazi Holocaust. Something made me reach for the writings of Etty Hillesum in preparation.
Born in Holland in 1914, she threw her last letter from a train to Auschwitz on September 7, 1943. She was cultured, perceptive, sensitive, sensuous, generous, life-loving, and, in her dairies, extraordinarily frank. I’d read many times her entry for 12 July 1942 entitled ‘Sunday morning prayer’, when she couldn’t sleep because she saw before her eyes ‘scene after scene of human suffering:’
One thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well.
What I hadn’t known was that Etty chose to go to Westerbork, the camp in northern Holland from where Jews were sent east, despite several offers to hide her. She refused to be parted from her people; she went willingly because she wanted ‘to give some of those parched thousands just one sip of water.’
‘I love people so much,’ she reflected at the close of one of her days there, telling her friend Jopie:
It all comes down to the same thing: life is beautiful. And I believe in God, And I want to be right there in the thick of what people call ‘horror’ and still be able to say: life is beautiful. (8 October 1942)
The horror was all too real, as her letters from Westerbork prove. But so was the humanity with which she refused to cede to the cruelty around her. So too was the kindness with which she affirmed the preciousness of life. If that counts as beauty, she achieved exactly what she intended.
She certainly lived out Isaiah’s creed of hope and faith, the very core of Judaism, even in what she couldn’t help but describe as ‘hell.’
Together she and he bequeath to us faith’s unyielding determination, the unceasing commitment to righteousness and compassion, the belief that the world should and can be different, and that you and I must help to make it so.