(Deuteronomy 25:17-19) Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt. How, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
Who were the stragglers cut down at the rear, the vulnerable, women, and children?
Our news this week has been dominated by outspoken, eloquent, movingly powerful young people – taking their political leaders to task in the United States of America where many of the family of our bat mitzvah live. Believe it or not, there was a time when I was younger too and I can just about remember it. Mercifully most of us will never experience a school shooting. But we were full of the energy of youth – or perhaps as the wonderful Jewish philosopher Martin Buber eloquently describes the Prejudices of Youth.
By which Buber goes on to tell us things like the prejudice against history which he writes:
“Young people like to assume that the world begins with them. ‘What the old folks have done is nothing but patchwork. We’ll do it differently.’ There is something fine and fruitful about this point of view. In order to accomplish anything, youth must have faith in itself. But the very same prejudice can become a dangerous stumbling block to a generation which in consequence of this prejudice rejects the effects of past history, and the forces that have produced this generation.”
Now Buber here sounds like a grumpy old man. Though he is addressing a group of young people in Prague in 1937, so his concern is for the future and for Judaism. But you see I’ve read this section many many times. I thought I would be a youth worker years ago before the rabbinate – the vibrancy of youth is something that I still encounter as a wave of energy that is hopeful and full of potential. I used to read Buber thinking about what it meant to me as a younger man. Now I read it as a middle aged man as misguided because it seeks to correct something that is essential to growing up.
I rather think that Isaac Rosenberg the Jewish war poet, born in 1890, as a young 20-something, before he died at just 28 in the first world war, has caught the breathtaking, heart fluttering, inspiration of youth when he writes:
“Youth is still childhood : when we cast off every cloudy vesture, and our thoughts are clear and mature ; when every act is a conscious thought, every thought an attempt to arrest feeling ; our feelings strong and overwhelming, our sensitiveness awakened by insignificant things in life ; when the skies race tumultuously with our blood, and the earth shines and laughs; when our blood hangs suspended at the rustling of a gown. Our vanity loves to subdue — battle, aggressive. How we despise those older and duller — we want life, newness, excitement.”
In a few weeks it will be 100 years since Rosenberg died in battle and his last poem was sent home in March 1918 arriving on 1st April 1918 when he was already dead:
Through These Pale Cold Days
Through these pale cold days
What dark faces burn
Out of three thousand years,
And their wild eyes yearn,
While underneath their brows
Like waifs their spirits grope
For the pools of Hebron again–
For Lebanon’s summer slope.
They leave these blond still days
In dust behind their tread
They see with living eyes
How long they have been dead.
Young people – we hear some terrible stereotypes about them, but forget that it is they (you) who are closest to the future and who must fight for it for all of us.
In Munich, the birthplace of my grandmother, on 22 February 1943 a young woman, Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans were executed. She was 22 and a part of the White Rose resistance movement against the Nazis. They used pamphlets, graffiti to encourage resistance – in the third of their leaflets you could read:
“Why do you allow these men who are in power to rob you step by step, openly and in secret, of one domain of your rights after another, until one day nothing, nothing at all will be left but a mechanised state system presided over by criminals and drunks? Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right – or rather, your moral duty – to eliminate this system?”
And Sophie Scholl’s last words were:
“How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”
We are bequeathing a world to our young people that is more confusing than ever before and yet we forget that they are the builders of tomorrow. It is quite literally their future and their lives that are on the line. Not some middle-aged rabbi at West London Synagogue. Our duty now is to protect them and their world with all means necessary.
Only then can they focus on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s message to young people:
“I would say, let them remember that there is meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we can, everyone do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and frustrations and all disappointments. And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to build a life as if it were a work of art. You’re not a machine. And you are young. Start working on this great work of art called your own existence.”
They must be helped because they are the inspiration, the hope, the ones who desire “life, newness, excitement.” May this be God’s will and speedily in our days and let us say: Amen.