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Rabbi Deborah Blausten

7th Day Pesach- On Regarding the Pain of Others

You can listen to Rabbi Deborah's sermon here or read below.


On boxing day 2004 my mum burst through the door of the internet cafe I was sitting in, she said ‘I need the computer, Jane A and her daughter are missing’.

Jane A was my mum’s childhood best friend, her parents, my grandparents’ neighbors and close confidants. When I heard they were missing my brain took me straight to the only frame of reference I had for missing people- I imagined a shadowy figure stealing them away from a park on a frosty December morning.

But that image was quickly replaced with a new one, as the images of the boxing day tsunami that had swept Jane, her mother in law, her daughter Lucy and more than 200,000 others to their deaths came flooding over our TV screens. 

We were in Switzerland at the time, and for the weeks after, the newspapers were covered in photos of utter destruction, and in particular of piles of bloated bodies. I’d never seen a dead body before, but suddenly I’d seen hundreds, children, faces. The papers and tv channels in Europe had a totally different policy to showing death to the ones in the UK. A debate raged in the media, was it grotesque and did it violate the dignity of those who had died? Or was the scale and horror of what had occurred simply so huge and so horrible that it needed these images to pierce through, to help people understand? In particular, how could they make westerners connect to the humanity of others across global and ethnic lines if not forced to visually confront the enormity of loss and the raw humanity. 

When we came back to England it became clear we had seen a completely different face of the tsunami to those who had watched English news. When we learnt that Jane’s surviving daughter Alice had been found by her father on a truck full of bodies swept up by the waves, we’d seen those trucks, those piles of people, how differently did we hear the news of what had happened to her because it was personal? How much because it came accompanied by hours of TV watching? Because we’d seen days of graphic and almost incomprehensibly tragic images? Because the images stayed in our minds even when the channel changed?

What if we’d just heard the words? 

תְּהֹמֹ֖ת יְכַסְיֻ֑מוּ יָרְד֥וּ בִמְצוֹלֹ֖ת כְּמוֹ־אָֽבֶן׃
The deeps covered them;
They went down into the depths like a stone.

נֶ֣עֶרְמוּ מַ֔יִם         נִצְּב֥וּ כְמוֹ־נֵ֖ד נֹזְלִ֑ים         קָֽפְא֥וּ תְהֹמֹ֖ת בְּלֶב־יָֽם׃
The waters piled up,
The floods stood straight like a wall;
The deeps froze in the heart of the sea.

כִּסָּ֣מוֹ יָ֑ם         צָֽלְלוּ֙ כַּֽעוֹפֶ֔רֶת בְּמַ֖יִם אַדִּירִֽים
The sea covered them;
They sank like lead in the majestic waters.

Not the boxing day tsunami this time, a different one, a divine one, the words of our Torah this morning describing the fate of the Egyptian soldiers in pursuit of the fleeing Israelites. People like to suggest that a perfectly timed tsunami could explain the sudden drawing back of the waters of the sea, and their dramatic flooding forward. What makes one tsunami less horrific than another? Have we missed the horror? Justified it? Or are we numb to it?

We don’t have any photographs of this moment. If we look for images of the exodus in art they are epic, beautiful, evocative and narrative and yet also not real. The story of pesach is horror- murder of Jewish first born sons, the plagues, the fear, the violence, the brutality of the waves. But it comes to us in poetry, sung exquisitely, it makes it almost safe; and it comes to us in art and it comes to us in stories. It lives in a place somewhere beyond truth, not just because of its dubious historicity but because of how we meet the story. 

We introduced our creative pseukei dzimra with a text from Susan Sontag’s essay ‘on regarding the pain of others’. It’s her last piece of writing before her own untimely death- a death famously and controversially photographed by Annie Liebowitz and accompanied by Sontag’s own reflections on death and the visual image. In the essay, Sontag reminds us that non-artistic, purely narrative images are an extremely modern phenomenon, and images of suffering even more so. 

She focuses her study particularly on war photography, which inherited the storytelling role from illustration in the mid 1800s but for a long time retained its composed style. War photography was meant to show beauty nobility and valour, and early shots were almost all staged, and then the world learnt the incredible power of an image beyond that of grand uniformed men serving their noble duty. But almost since the moment a camera could catch an unstaged sight, discussion has raged about what can be seen and by whom. Sontag notes that for a long time the consensus was that 'perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it- say, the surgeons at the military hospital where the photograph was taken- or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.'

If you’ve been watching the news recently, or even more so perhaps if you’ve been on twitter or telegram or perhaps even on whatsapp, you’ll know that this line between what perhaps only doctors were once permitted see of the horrors of war, and what we can all see for ourselves at any given moment in graphic detail- regardless of the consent of those in the images- has gone. For the past two months the 6 o clock news has shown- with a warning- images of piles of bodies. Images of mass graves, severed limbs, bleeding children, bloated corpses. Photos from one conflict are recycled, recaptioned, and reshared with a new story attached.

And it makes me ask- what do these images do to us? Do they stir us into a higher consciousness, shake us out of our privileged lives and transport us from dinner table or bus seat to the streets of Kharkiv or Bucha? And if they do, what do we do with what they stir in us when we need to get off the bus or clear the plates? And if they don’t what has happened to us? If the telling of a story is so poetic we can lose touch with what is happening, is that also true for the opposite?

Sontag explains that ‘harrowing photos do not inevitably lose their power to shock. But they are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand.'

I think this is perhaps the first part for us to consider this morning, how we resist objectifying the people we see in these photos as purely damaged bodies, how we learn their stories and connect with the human beyond the moment captured in a photo. 

She continues ‘one can feel obliged to look at photographs that record great cruelties and crimes. One SHOULD feel obliged to think about what it means to look at them, about the capacity actually to assimilate what they show.' 

What happens to people when images of war in its rawest and most brutal form reach the eyes of those in power and nothing happens? Images are both absolutely vital testimony that presents incontrovertible evidence that something occurred, and also pieces of paper that can be flipped over, or files that can be deleted. 

And so she continues,

'Compassion is an unstable emotion, it needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question of what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing 'we' can do -- but who is that 'we'? -- and nothing 'they' can do either -- and who are 'they' -- then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.'

It’s not the seeing or the knowing the reality of suffering that sends people into a passive state- it is the mismatch between what we see and what we can do about it. 

'So far as we feel sympathy we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence.'

In other words we see, we hurt, and we feel powerless, and in the worst case scenario we learn to tolerate that powerlessness, see ourselves as victims too, and watch the horrors unfold popcorn in hand until it is time to turn off the TV and go to bed.

People are not just images, the image is a snapshot and an invitation for us to ask questions and reach out beyond the image. When we are consumers of stories we also in our passivity delegate the power over how they unfold to others. 

The Passover story, and particularly the moments of final Exodus we read today, might be less graphic in their narration of truly brutal and horrific events, but they encode something vital. The retelling of the pesach story cyclically is there to educate and activate- it is not just hear this, it’s hear this and then do this. Feel this, and then use that unstable emotion called compassion to light a spark, and to decide if we accept the world as it is shown to us or not. It is trying to break us out of the cycle that those who seek to retain their tyrannical rule over others benefit from us falling into. 

Sometimes limiting our intake of the most extreme images is not an act of disinterest, but a way of saying that we want to resist normalizing or numbing responses to this level of graphic trauma. It is not a privilege afforded to those in the line of fire, nor is it a denial of their existence, but it is an acknowledgement that seeing them all the time changes us because it takes us into the battlefield as an impotent observer in that space at the expense of seeing ourselves as potent actors in this one.

Passover is an act of collective memory, a decision that this story matters, a communal practice of not allowing ourselves to become numb to the pain of others, nor needing to wait for the most graphic evocative images of human suffering to feel moved to act. For generations a story was enough to educate and activate, and so too may it be for us in this world. May the ancient words give us renewed purpose, and allow us to reach out to people to know them beyond this time of their suffering, that we may travel into a different future together.

Sat, 21 May 2022 20 Iyar 5782