The great English poet, W. H. Auden, wrote a poem entitled September 1, 1939 which was published a month later in October 1939. Written at the outbreak of World War Two, the poem captures the feelings of fear and uncertainty of the time. It remains a text which speaks to us at a time of crisis; it reached the heart of many in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.
It is a poem which sadly and surely speaks to us today as we witness another war unfolding in Eastern Europe.
This is how the poem begins, as Auden reflects on the anger and despair sweeping across countries all around the world and the awful implications of death and war hang over the September night like an odious smell:
I sit in one of the dives
On 52nd Street
Uncertain and afraid…
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the Earth.
These are dark and dangerous days. We thought we had seen the last of widespread fascism, authoritarianism, regression and naked aggression. New York Times journalist, David Brooks, comments – “history is reverting towards barbarism”. The kind of freedom and democracy we take for granted are under threat. You can feel the anxiety in Melbourne, you can see the anguish on the faces of those with loved ones caught up in this awful war.
The Torah portions of both last week and this week speak to me about the anarchy of lawlessness as well as the necessity for strength and faith in the face of brutality and nihilism. In last week’s Torah reading the people of Israel are seized by the chaos and fearfulness of a world without boundaries and borders. They build a golden calf, they abandon their leaders and restraints, and they surrender to a primeval madness and evil. It almost destroys the new nation and threatens to end the freedom, order and justice they had achieved.
Can you find a pathway out of such devastation and desperation?
This week’s Torah reading assures us that there is an antidote to the mad cow disease, that there is hope despite the hopelessness we may be feeling. It is tempting to feel otherwise, to be cynical about humanity and its inability to learn from the past. As the sceptical saying puts it: They said, Cheer up – things could be worse, So I cheered up… And sure enough, things got worse!
This is, however, not the Jewish way. In the face of the devastation, the Jewish people begin to build again.
This time however they do not build an idol but they build a spiritual sanctuary . Everyone brings out their very best objects and aspirations and contribute towards the building. They are filled with heart and passion, with faith and fortitude. They create an ark and a candelabra or menorah of light.
They work together to mend broken hearts and broken promises .Says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: there is nothing inevitable or logical about hope. There are cultures in which it does not exist. There is not necessarily a logical reason to believe that tomorrow will be better than today. Hope however is, as sociologist Peter Berger calls it, a signal of transcendence. Judaism calls on us all to be agents of hope.
In the closing lines of his poem, Auden challenges us all not to be overcome by negation and despair but to find the splinters of light wherever we can, to be forces of light and love where ever we find ourselves.
We must love one another or die.
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere, points of light flash out
Show an affirming flame
May all good and caring people come together in these times and show a strong and affirming flame.
This is surely one Shabbat when the greeting of Shalom, of peace, has a special and poignant resonance…
So Shabbat Shalom to you and Shabbat Shalom to our worried world. Let there be peace!