There is a particular kind of sadness that comes from remembering war. It is not only the needless loss of life, nor those who come home traumatised. There is something specific in the discomfort that comes after furious build-up, tragic participation, and ultimate reconciliation.
In this week’s haftarah, Ovadiah promises a glorious war against Edom. The Edomites will be defeated and humiliated. Israel will be victorious and avenged.
Ovadiah addresses Israel’s neighbouring nation of Edom: “For the violence against your brother Jacob, disgrace will surround you. You will be cut off for all eternity.”
He tells these nations: “The house of Jacob shall be fire, and the house of Esau shall be straw. They will set fire to it and consume it.”
In these bellicose proclamations, we get the feeling of the build-up to war. We realise, too, that Jacob and Esau are not just the names of characters in a story: they are representatives of nations.
Jacob is Israel. Esau is Edom. They are the respective countries on either side of the River Jordan. Their inhabitants imagine themselves as twin brothers, yet constantly in conflict.
This helps us make sense of the story in Torah this week. Jacob heads over to the river to make amends with Esau. He has been wrestling with his conscience and wants to make amends, but fears that if he puts forth an olive branch, Esau may kill him.
Jacob separates his clan into divisions to approach from different sides, like military battalions. He sends forward gifts and apologies with every single one. As he approaches his brother, he prostrated himself many times, bowing down in peaceful submission. Finally, they reach each other, hug, and cry. They are reconciled.
When we understand that these brothers are representatives of neighbouring nations, this is not just a story of family strife, or conflict between competing characters. It is the biblical redactors’ fantasy of what peace could mean. These countries could be united. Their bitter violence could be set aside. After years of fighting, people might once again embrace each other and cry with relief.
The special sadness of remembrance comes with contemplation after the war. What was it for? Whose interests did it serve? And how do we resolve to prevent it happening again?
After World War 1, poppies bloomed in Flanders Field, where some of the worst battles had been fought. Out of the trenches where so many had died, these scarlet flowers sprouted from the ground. They became a symbol.
“Never again,” they said.
Around 40 million people had died. Once it was over, many could no longer remember what they had been fighting for. The motivations of Empire and nationalism no longer seemed so compelling in the wreckage of war. Countries pledged to end the impetus to war with diplomacy, increased international cooperation and greater understanding between peoples.
After World War 2, the politicians once again pledged never again. Never again would fascism be able to rear its ugly head. They would combat, too, the root causes that had allowed Hitler to look appealing. No more would they allow such poverty and inequality to persist, giving way to racist scapegoats.
The countries of Europe built social democracies, with universal healthcare systems and progressive welfare states. They said they would not repeat old mistakes. They formed alliances and international bodies that, they said, would prevent war.
For as long as I have been alive, Britain has been at war. Earlier this year, NATO troops finally withdrew from their twenty-year conflict in Afghanistan. It had begun when I was starting secondary school. Some of my friends enlisted to fight.
At the time, we were told the war would avenge the World Trade Centre attacks; find Osama bin Laden; and defeat the Taliban. In the end, Osama bin Laden had never been Afghanistan and the Taliban emerged more powerful than ever. I doubt many of the victims of 9/11 feel much joy in seeing the war that has been carried out in their name.
When the war was declared, it was popular. Today, it is hard to find anyone who says they agreed with it.
Politicians declare war full of nationalist fervour and triumphant spirit, only to return defeated and bereft. Even the victors feel no glory once a war is won. They leave too much devastation in their wake.
Families are torn apart. Cities are destroyed. Lived are lost. Entire ways of life are destroyed. And, at the end of it all, the only thing to do is reflect on what went wrong. We promise once more to make peace.
The Torah’s narrative of Jacob and Esau offers us a glimpse of what peace might look like. It encourages us to look beyond the narrow excitement for violence proclaimed by Ovadiah and the promises of national glory. It reminds us to think of how much greater it would be to have peace.
Like the Prophets of old, we pray for the day when nation no longer lifts up sword against nation, and no more no peoples learn war.
May God grant us, and all the world, peace.
I gave this sermon for Remembrance Shabbat, Parashat Vayishlach on Saturday 20th November at South West Essex and Settlement Reform Synagogue