Naomi Graetz

For Whom the Bell Tolls: Time is Running Out

My Copy of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls

Almost everyone to whom I speak nowadays tells me they have insomnia. All over Israel (and I guess the world as well) we are worried. Our chaotic world has gotten more so. There is a feeling that time is running out: for peace, for the hostages, for the people of Gaza (of whom many might be innocent), and even for the world.

There is a feeling that it can all blow up in our faces, literally. And every day, there is another heartbreaking picture of a soldier who has been killed in battle. (Just two days ago there were ten). Every day we scan the faces, we see the young men whose lives have just started and those who are a bit older who already have careers and family and we collectively mourn. We pray for the four categories of wounded: critical, stable, light and doing well. We collectively rejoice, when a wounded person is well enough to be sent home or to rehabilitation, or when a hostage is released. We mourn together with those who have received the terrible news about the death of a hostage or when a decomposed body is identified and is officially declared dead. We comfort ourselves by saying that at least they now have closure. We question whether our soldiers should risk their lives to bring back dead bodies to Israel, yet we feel for the families who are marching, campaigning for the lives of their hostages, for whom they correctly argue that time is running out. “Every day, we worry that they are dying a little bit more. We implore our government, the Israeli government, and governments around the world to find a way to bring them home before it is too late,” the families told President Biden the other day.

We feel like we are in a scene of history repeating itself. We recall 1914 and 1939, when the world blew up, because of what took place in small corners of the world. We are all the pawns of geopolitics.

So back to my insomnia, this morning rather than stay in bed and think dire thoughts about the phrase “for whom the bell tolls”, I googled it, expecting to see John Donne’s famous poem/essay/sermon pop up. However, it was Hemingway’s novel about the Spanish Civil War. To get a copy of the poem, I had to add Donne’s name.


Why these associations? This week we are reading parshat miketz. For the last year and a half, I have been teaching both the Book of Genesis and the Book of Job. Regretfully, some of my Job students have dropped out, because the questions raised by Job are too painful for them now—and they are waiting to rejoin when we start another topic. As to my Genesis class, I joked with them that the rest of the world has caught up with us, for we read chapter 41 this week. On the surface, there is the story of Joseph’s Cinderella-like story (from rags to riches) and how he saves the ancient middle eastern world by his ability to understand dreams. Joseph as we all know interpreted Pharoah’s dreams and told him that there would be seven good years and seven bad ones. This is a contemporaneous story: We have lived the good life, for the last couple of years, and now we in Israel must gird ourselves for at least seven bad ones. In the biblical story, there will be a depiction of Egyptians turned into slaves by Joseph, and the rest of the world becoming economic refugees, forced by starvation to come to Egypt. What started out as internal fighting between jealous brothers, has become international hell. True there is no war; Joseph holds all the cards and wealth and the starving world comes to him for sustenance. He is godlike and a dictator. It is a very disturbing picture. And like many in power, he looks out for his family first (Genesis 47:12 ff) amidst the starving people of Egypt. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it: people governing our country care mostly about their own skins and constituencies. They take money needed for the war effort and the communities which were devastated and give it to their own followers. A least the Knesset Speaker was embarrassed enough to cancel the discussions on raising their own salaries saying:

At this time, when the state and many of its citizens are dealing with the economic consequences of the war, just as I worked to cut NIS 80 million [$20.5 million] from the Knesset budget, I think it would be right for Knesset members to also be partners in the economic effort, which should be focused on rehabilitating communities and their residents” (here). [As “Joe” pointed out in the comments section: “They should take a PAY CUT! Some of us have ZERO income because of the war, meanwhile they are paying themselves three times the national average? Thieves”].

But the thievery, thuggery and self-interest of those leading our government is less disturbing than the fact that time is running out. We do not have confidence in what is being accomplished. I for one, never trust anyone who is sure of what he is doing. Should I trust the army spokesman? I do not trust the government. I trust the well-meaning people and foreign governments who want to help us; but there is no such thing as a free lunch. We are not an island. What is happening here has reverberations, repercussions. We are sitting on fuse boxes. More soldiers are being killed as I write. Who knows what tomorrow’s news will bring us.


So, when I read the famous excerpt from the 17th century sermon by the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne (which I studied in my literature class in the Sixties) it speaks to me as loudly as it did then; perhaps, more so today.

No man is an island, Entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, A part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manor of thine own Or of thine friend’s were. Each man’s death diminishes me, For I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know  or whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee.

It is interesting that Ernest Hemingway’s novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, published in 1940, took its title from this poem. It tells the story of Robert Jordan, a volunteer during the Spanish civil war. The funeral bells speak to me. They are like the daily pictures of the soldiers which are printed in the media. They toll for their deaths but they also toll for us, for in Israel every soldier who dies is a part of us and is sacrificing his or her life so that we can live. But the bells also serve as a warning, a wakeup call. This was the message of Hemingway’s novel: what started out as a civil war in Spain, presaged a world war that would eventually affect everyone.


As I write these words, I ponder over the meaning of a “civil” war. We were on the verge of a civil war, before the October 7th, when the real war broke out. What is civil about war? We also talk about not killing innocent civilians. My whole family has arguments about the innocence of these civilians—anyone who does not protest, is not innocent, they argue. Bystanders are complicit. This is an argument they repeat over and over again. And there is some truth to it. But it is also an unfair argument. I remember growing up in America in the fifties (during the McCarthy era) being told by my parents to NEVER sign anything.  And I still hesitate to do so and think twice before signing petitions, or even make written comments to newspaper articles with which I agree or disagree. I tend to write, ponder and protest with my pen, rather than go out to protest with flags or march at rallies. Does that make me a bystander, because I see injustice but do not actively go out and fight it?

We have to be very careful when we take sides and turn half of humanity into “others”. Tables have a habit of turning on us when we take extreme stances. What we blame others for doing, may later turn out to be others blaming us for what we are doing. And it is happening before our eyes: No, we are not Nazis, yet somehow a good number of people in the world see us as that. The world has sympathy for us when we are perceived as victims, but we lose their sympathy when we are victors. Interesting that both words have “vict” as their roots. Google tells me that the Latin word victus means life. A victor is a survivor or conqueror. A victima is an animal or person that is sacrificed. So, one lives and the other loses its life. The line between the two is very thin. כל העולם כולו גשר צר מאד –the whole world is a very narrow bridge (kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar meod).

Tonight, we celebrated the 8th day of Hanukah. We talked about lights and all I could think about was the “light at the end of the tunnel”. And my immediate association with this was the light which is normally considered positive, can also be an explosive planted to blow up. The word “tunnel” is no longer a neutral term. We are beset with contradictions and uncertainties. But not everyone feels the same way. There are many who are sure that they have found the correct path and have discovered certainty. I found the following youtube about a “woke” white student to be very instructive: It is ironic that woke means the very opposite; those who are woke are sleeping and deluded. The message is clear: Wake up, don’t be woke for the bells are tolling for  us and time is running out.

All that is left is to hope and pray that someone, somewhere, somehow will get out of this mess. But meanwhile, as the song says: “I’m clogging up my feelings with this sickness that is sadness; [when asked how we’re doing, we dishonestly answer:] we’re all just doing fine”.





About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
Related Topics
Related Posts