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2 minutes
First broadcast:
Tuesday 03 September 2013

A spiritual comment and prayer to begin the day with Ed Kessler, Director of the Woolf Institute of Abrahamic Faiths, Cambridge.

  • Ed Kessler

    Good morning,

    On this day, the 64th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War, when Great Britain declared war on Germany, I would like to reflect on a parable told by the Jewish theologian and rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel.

    The problem he wanted to address was the human tendency to tackle symptoms, rather than problems: over-eating (or under-eating) is symptomatic of, not the cause of, a problem; alcoholism is symptomatic; drug addiction is symptomatic; fighting is symptomatic. And so is war.

    Attack the symptom, he suggests, and another will simply rise up.

    This is his parable: a band of inexperienced mountain climbers, without guides, struck recklessly into the wilderness. Suddenly a rocky ledge gave way beneath their feet and they were tumbled headlong into a dismal pit. In the darkness of the pit they recovered from their shock, only to find themselves set upon by a swarm of angry snakes. Every crevice became alive with fanged, hissing things. For each snake the desperate men slew, ten more seemed to appear in its place. Strangely enough, one man seemed to stand aside from the fight. When the indignant voices of his struggling companions reproached him for not fighting, he called back: If we remain here, we shall be dead before the snakes. I am searching for a way of escape from the pit for all of us.

    Heschel suggests that in order to find the way out, we must think about the problem, which is not fighting the snakes but looking for the means of escape; not the symptom but the cause.

    Today is as good a day as any to reflect on the lessons of history.

    Lord, help us reflect on the causes of war, so that at the very least, we are not bound to repeat it. Amen


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