Most years, after the bleak fast of Tishah b’Av is over and we arrive at Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Consolation, named after the beautiful words of Isaiah ‘“Comfort you, comfort you, my people”, says the Lord’, a change comes over me, like a cool wind blowing through the heart, like the song of a waterfall, still hidden below the trees but near, restorative and strong: ‘The glory of God is revealed, and all flesh shall see it together’. I wish it was possible to feel the same this year.
On Monday I was privileged to attend on behalf of the Jewish community the service in Glasgow Cathedral commemorating the centenary of the start of the First World War. It was an extremely humbling experience. At its heart was the movingly read extract from Helen Thomas’s memoirs of her husband Edward’s last leave; he had joined the Artists’ Rifles in 1915. As he walked out into the snow and mist, their final parting, he called out to her their familiar call ‘Coo-ee’ and she endeavoured to respond:
- “Coo-ee!” So faint now that it might be only my own call flung back from the thick air and muffling snow. I put my hands up to my mouth to make a trumpet, but no sound came. Panic seized me, and I ran through the mist and the snow to the top of the hill, and stood there a moment dumbly, with straining eyes and ears. There was nothing but the mist and the snow and the silence of death.
Somehow in those words the echo or vibration of an overwhelming heartache traversed the entire congregation, the aftershock of inexpressible sorrows still palpable after a hundred years.
As we walked out from the service, our subdued feelings warmed by the great kindness of everyone around, I glimpsed on the edge of my sight-lines the banners of a small demonstration, ‘No More War’.
Yesterday the Iraqi town of Qaraqosh was captured by Isis fighters; it had supposedly been a ‘safe haven’ for tens of thousands of Christians and Yazidis. An appalling humanitarian disaster looms; America has dropped food and water, and has threatened air strikes.
In Gaza it is still not clear if Hamas will keep the uneasy truce. Few really believe it’s all over. As Asher Schechter wrote in yesterday’s Haaretz,
- Iron Dome can’t intercept reality. Our rockets and aircrafts can’t solve the unsolvable any easier. They can’t even guarantee us a quiet winter, because this is not an ordinary military conflict. There is no winning this.
Winning will have to look like something different from war, and more war, which, if it simply continues without any political or human resolution, will only bring fear, pain and grief, and more fear, pain and grief, to everyone.
Where, then, lies the comfort of which Isaiah speaks with such grace?
Sometimes we have to derive it not from around us, but from within us. Can we ourselves be of comfort? Is there any way in which, in whatever capacity, we can be healers? There is the immediate need to move shrapnel from wounded flesh, a skill in which most of us are not qualified. There is the more widespread need to remove hatred from wounded hearts and minds, an even more challenging endeavour in which none of us is totally unskilled and to which, if humanity is to have a future at all, we must all most urgently be committed.
In harsh times it’s easy to spread hate; social media have made it even simpler. Instead, we need to try to understand each other’s needs, anxieties, hopes and frustrations. We need to listen from our hearts, say the words, create the paths and establish the opportunities for each other’s humanity to unfold. This begins at home, moves out into our own communities, and then maybe even crosses boundaries into those of other faiths and those whose minds have been bound on different trajectories from our own.
These thoughts may sound weak to the point of folly and irrelevance when violence and death are on the loose. I’m afraid of them and we have to defend ourselves. But I’m even more afraid of the hatreds not yet born, being bred in hearts even now, conceived amidst fury and destruction, awaiting their future. We will only supplant them if we can give each other hope; if we can restore for one another the true human legacy of life, affections, plans, ideas, safety, wonder and joy.
Moses summed up God’s injunction in the simplest of all commands: ‘Uvacharta vachayyim; choose life!’ We must help one another to choose life and therein must lie our comfort.