The commemoration of Passchendaele this week brought home once again the devastation of the First World War. It is thought that half a million soldiers lost their lives in that one battle alone. The moving tributes offered at the Menin Gate were a stark reminder of the impact of the First World War on the world in the last century and who could help but think about the lessons that so many in the world seem yet to learn 100 years on.
It would be easy to slip into despair and pessimism. Our future seems, sometimes, less certain than perhaps it has for decades. Yet we think of the upheaval of the first half of the twentieth century and we are reminded that even in the muddy trenches of Ypres and the murderous death camps of the Shoah the human spirit could not be broken. From the darkest nights of last century there emerged a renewed commitment to build again.
The period in which we find ourselves now in the Jewish calendar is one that allows us time to think about this renewal. From the destruction of the Temple and exile that we mark on Tisha B’Av, we move to the Seven Weeks of Consolation. These seven weeks, marked every Shabbat in the Haftarah reading, lead us towards Rosh Hashanah. They are a time designated to reflect on loss and devastation. The rabbis have a beautiful way of protesting against God and remaining hopeful, at the same time. They see in the consolation and comfort an opportunity to once again renew our commitment to a vision of a better world in which Isaiah’s prophecies will come to pass. How else could we explain our audacity in reading our Haftarah this week from Isaiah 40, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, Says your God”.