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Sanity, Not Cynicism – Bemidbar 5781

(Note: This sermon was delivered during the 11 days in May, 2021, in which Hamas rockets rained down on Israel by the thousands, and Israel responded with airstrikes on Hamas targets in Gaza. Although a cease-fire was announced on 5/20, the message here still applies.)

We knew this would happen again. We knew that there would be instigations in Jerusalem. We knew that the rockets would fly from Gaza, causing Israelis to flee to bomb shelters at all hours. We knew that there would be reprisals. We knew that there would be an asymmetrical body count. We knew this, because nothing has changed since 2014, the last time this happened.

Nothing has changed.

Nobody is talking to each other. There is no round table, no smoke-filled room. Rather, there is cynicism all around. Cynics who have declared the peace process dead. Cynics who say, “They don’t care about peace.” Cynics who say, “This is our land, not theirs.” Cynics who say, “The other side only understands violence.”

Granted, talking is hard. This is the most intractable diplomatic challenge in the world. The Israelis believe that they have no reliable partner with whom to talk. The Palestinians are concerned that talking with the Israelis will only inflame the Palestinian street. Anxiety leads to cynicism leads to war.

And yet, something has changed for me. This time things are a little different than they were seven years ago. 

What has changed? My 20-year-old son, Oryah, is now serving in חיל התותחנים / Ḥeil haTotḥanim, the IDF’s artillery corps. He was recruited for his mandatory army service last summer, two weeks before my daughter Hannah’s bat mitzvah. At this moment, he is serving in the West Bank.

I am breathing OK for now. But I must say that being the father of a soldier in an active armed conflict is an experience that I have never desired, even if it is for a country that I love. I am praying more fervently now for all Israelis in the line of fire, but all the more so that those who defend Israel from terrorists can do so speedily and securely and with minimal loss of life. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I will remind you once again that I am a proud Zionist. I have lived in Israel; I have been a diligent student of Israeli history and the Modern Hebrew language; I adore Israeli pop music, Israeli food and culture; I am grateful for the modern miracle that is the Jewish state. I am grateful that Israel is a thriving, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, a bustling democracy in a region that is not known for its strong adherence to democratic principles. I am proud of Israel’s success in education, in high-tech industries, in public health. 

I am also proud, and nervous, to have a son serving in the IDF.

But I am also anxious about Israel’s current state. Consider the following:

  • Israel has had four national elections in two years, and is still unable to form a governing coalition. The political chaos has left it rudderless for some time. This is not a healthy situation.
  • Palestinian elections were supposed to take place in the West Bank, but were canceled, perhaps due to the Palestinian Authority’s concern that they would lose. The PA is, sadly, widely seen as corrupt and ineffective by the Palestinian population.
  • The confluence of the end of Ramadan and Yom Yerushalayim, the Israeli holiday celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem following the Six Day War in 1967, created even more political and religious tension in the holiest city in the world.
  • Add to this the real estate dispute in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem. As you know, every square centimeter in the Holy Land, and particularly the Holy City, has the potential to be a flash point. The opportunity surrounding this for instigation by activists on opposite sides was simply too great not to take advantage of, and suddenly there was a serious tinder-box situation.

Israel attempted to lower tensions by putting off the Sheikh Jarrah court decision and by canceling the Jerusalem Day parade. But this was not enough; Jerusalem was already heating up, with rock-throwing and demonstrations and police and worshippers injured in horrible clashes on the Temple Mount. 

Hamas, in an extraordinarily cynical and murderous move, decided that in order to “defend Al-Aqsa,” the mosque on the Temple Mount, they must actually shoot missiles into Israel, including into the Jerusalem area, where Al-Aqsa is located. Their calculus in doing so is that of being perceived on the Arab street as being the true defenders of the Palestinian cause compared to the powerlessness of the PA.

The thousands of rockets which Hamas has sent over have not only put Israelis in danger, but also put Israel in the unfortunate position of having to respond by seeking out and destroying the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza.

Again.

Please remember that, as in the past, Israel does everything it can to minimize civilian casualties, including warning shots, leaflets, calls to cell phones, and so forth. Hamas typically urges Gazans not to leave, so that the body count is higher. It is truly heartbreaking.

An even more unfortunate development, something that has never happened before, is the civil unrest that has broken out in Israeli cities with mixed Arab and Jewish populations. Border troops were deployed in Lod, where a synagogue was burned. A presumably Israeli Arab man was beaten by a Jewish mob in Bat Yam. A group of Arab protesters seriously injured a Jewish resident of Akko. This is a gravely upsetting situation that will breed further mistrust and will tear at Israel’s social fabric for years to come.

I hope that the Jewish Israelis who are participating in these riots understand what an embarrassment and a tragedy it is to see our people stooping to such a horrible low point. We have to be above thuggish behavior; if not, we are no better than the terrorists. Let us act on the Jewish value of kevod haberiyot, respect for all of God’s creatures, including those who hate us, and not on the base principles of revenge.

What is the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different outcome. We (and I mean all of us) have been working on finding a solution for decades now, and we have, it seems, lost the will to proceed. We are not talking to each other. And people are dying. Again.

Back in my final year of rabbinical school, before they gave us a JTS tallit and kicked us out into the world, senior rabbinical and cantorial students were required to read a book by Rabbi Edwin Friedman, who was also a family therapist, called, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. The book was written for clergy, to help them work with families and congregants, and I learned from Rabbi Friedman some valuable lessons about the principles behind family therapy. Family therapy is an area within psychology that treats families as systems, taking into account how all the members of the family unit interact with each other.

One of those principles is the difference between stasis and equilibrium. Equilibrium occurs when all of the individuals within a family system are functioning together harmoniously, when they are all connected to each other and there are no breakdowns between people. It is a family system in balance. That is what we all seek in our own lives, within our own families; it is a healthy situation.

Stasis means that there is a dysfunction in the family system – breakdowns between people, failure to communicate, acting out by some individuals, and so forth. When a family is in stasis, nothing is changing, but the system is not in balance. Until the underlying problems that are the source of toxicity are revealed and addressed, a family in stasis cannot move forward, and certainly cannot be in equilibrium.

All the stakeholders: the Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority, their respective citizens, the international community, the nearby Arab governments, the Western powers, and yes, even Hamas, are all in a family system together, and it is a system that has been in stasis, not in balance, not healthy, for a long time, and that is having a pernicious effect on all parties. Nobody wants to address the underlying problems, because there will be a political cost. Nobody wants to stick their neck out, because the task seems insurmountable.

Peace is hard. You don’t make peace with your friends. Finding solutions to where lines are drawn, how governments cooperate, who is in charge of what, who can travel where, who provides electricity and water to whom – these are all extraordinary challenges. But it certainly beats having to run into bomb shelters, or to have your building destroyed, or your fields set on fire, or civil unrest in your city, or God forbid to lose a child.

True leadership is not driven by fear or anxiety or the possibility of losing your prime ministership or even your life. True leadership happens when, while being in touch with all the relevant stakeholders, you make a decision to move forward. True leadership is bravery. And we need the kind of bravery Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin showed the world in the 1970s. We should all be praying for such leadership to emerge.

Good, brave leadership, both within Israel and outside, would find a way to talk rather than to launch rockets.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have ancient marching orders here from on high. These are the words of Psalm 122:

שַׁ֭אֲלוּ שְׁל֣וֹם יְרוּשָׁלִָ֑ם יִ֝שְׁלָ֗יוּ אֹהֲבָֽיִךְ׃
יְהִֽי־שָׁל֥וֹם בְּחֵילֵ֑ךְ שַׁ֝לְוָ֗ה בְּאַרְמְנוֹתָֽיִךְ׃ 
לְ֭מַעַן אַחַ֣י וְרֵעָ֑י אֲדַבְּרָה־נָּ֖א שָׁל֣וֹם בָּֽךְ׃
לְ֭מַעַן בֵּית־ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵ֑ינוּ אֲבַקְשָׁ֖ה ט֣וֹב לָֽךְ׃ 

Pray for the well-being of Jerusalem; “May those who love you be at peace.
May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels.”
For the sake of my sisters and brothers and fellow humans, I pray for your well-being;
for the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I seek your good. 

I do not know, any better than you do, or PM Netanyahu, or PM Abbas, or any of the other relevant leaders, how to solve the very, very deep problems here. But I do know this: if we do nothing, if we do not talk to each other, at best, nothing will change; at worst, bloodshed will continue. We will be in the same place in another few years. And that is tragically, indeed, homicidally cynical.

Let us pray for Jerusalem, and for all its inhabitants; that we seek God’s imperative for good, for well-being.

Let us pray for Israel, and for the entire region, that those who live there, between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, should live in peace.

Let us pray that all the stakeholders seek equilibrium, and emerge from this dreadful stasis.

Let us pray for sanity over cynicism.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/15/2021.)