This year I have come to recognise an important detail about my life that I had not consciously given thought to before; that my generation have had the great fortune of growing up in peacetime.
I have also come to recognise that “peacetime” is a rarity in this world. And there are of course exceptions even for those of my generation. My wife, for example, having grown up in Israel, has never really known peacetime. She grew up hearing sirens and running to bomb shelters as a “normal” routine. The natural world alone, as Tennyson wrote, is “red in tooth and claw”. All of the biological world is an arms race striving for survival over perils that abound. We live on a hostile planet embedded in a cold, dark universe. We should be used to it!
Yet, the unrest, war, terror, destruction, calamity and hardship that we have all seen this year are almost too much to bear. And this comes on top of the entire world being “locked-down” for close to 18 months because of a deadly pandemic.
A common word today is “unprecedented”, used to accentuate the seeming rarity of the disasters that we witness. But, as King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes, “there is nothing new under the sun”. And while some might argue that he didn’t anticipate AI or TikTok, his point is not about the technologies that revolutionise society but, rather, about humans and the lives we live.
For despite all the changes that we endure and bring on, human beings are very much the same as we have always been. We all hurt and laugh; feel grief, sadness, insult, jealousy and delight. We struggle with ego and power. And wish to live in comfort and happiness.
But because few of us have experienced a major war, its ugliness, savagery, violence and bloodshed are particularly jarring. What’s more, we are deeply concerned for our children. We have watched them, almost helplessly, as their formative years have included spells of “house arrest” during the pandemic. We knew that they should be spending their days with friends, in school, socialising and learning together. But we were unable, despite everyone’s best efforts, to make this happen for them.
And now today, we must negotiate with our children the real-time questions of how Jewish they should look outside of home and whether it is safe to be who they are on the streets of their native city. They watch videos of throngs marching in hatred towards our people and, for those who have not yet made it to university, there is real fear about what the experience will be like for them.
To say that times are dark would be an understatement. But, it is also important to remember that both the world and the Jewish people have been here before. And we have come through. Indeed, the world and the Jewish people have actually got better!
If we were to look at history, is it not true that the world is getting collectively better? Who reading this now would, given the opportunity, go back even 100 years in time? I don’t mean to visit – but to go back and stay there; to live life in 1924 instead of 2024.
For the majority of human history, around 50 per cent of all children in the world died. Today, it is 4.3 per cent. Poverty, hunger, mortality, and even war, are nothing like they used to be. And that is also down to the work, study, advocacy, discovery and good will of the human race. A cardinal tenet of Judaism is hope. And while we have certainly experienced casualty and calamity, hope has never failed us. It is not for naught that we have chosen hope, Hatikva, as our national anthem.
Likewise, when things are dark and difficult we must never lose sight of all the beauty, joy, and deep spiritual grace of life. We must never forget to take the opportunities to be moved by exquisite music or art, to celebrate births, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. To play with our children, spend time with them, to attend shul as our parents, grandparents and theirs before them did. To study, discover, learn and grow. Or just to spend time and have fun with good friends. When we are forced to fight wars, we do so to protect these very things. So, the next time you have opportunity to raise a celebratory glass, say lehayim – to life! With the fullness and joy of life in mind.
I don’t suggest for a moment that we should in any way disregard the awful realities we face. We must allow ourselves to feel them too. But we must also never forget that, as all things ebb and flow, this era too will result in a resolution. We and our children will know peace again.
Rabbi Dweck is Senior Rabbi of the S&P Sephardi Community