It is always an interesting time to be in Israel! You probably heard that the governing coalition fell apart while we were there, meaning that they will go to elections for the fifth time in three years. This coalition actually held together longer than anybody expected – about a year – and they at least passed a budget, which the State desperately needed. But the likelihood is that the next round will yield a right-wing government, and perhaps the return of Bibi as PM, despite his ongoing corruption trial.
But this was a particularly appropriate time to be in Israel, if not simply because the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Mega Mission was the first large group (about 240 strong, on seven buses!) to come to Israel since before the pandemic. It seemed that the whole nation was grateful that we were there, touring Israel, visiting people and museums and organizations and of course contributing to the tourist economy.
It was also appropriate because of a curious calendrical phenomenon: that while we were there, Israeli synagogues read Parashat Shelaḥ Lekha, and upon our return, here we are again. This is due to the fact that, since Israel only observes seven days of Pesaḥ and we observe eight, and the eighth day this year was on Shabbat, we in the Diaspora have been one week behind Israel in the Torah-reading cycle since the week after Pesaḥ. (Don’t worry – it will all be resolved again in a few weeks!)
But two weeks of Parashat Shelaḥ Lekha is particularly appropriate because it opens with – get this – a bunch of chieftains sent to tour the Land of Israel. As you may recall, ten come back with a bad report (i.e. There are giants there who will squash us like bugs!), and the other two, Kalev and Yehoshua, report their modest confidence in being able to successfully enter and conquer the land. (It is worth noting here that the ten fearful reporters cause Moshe great anguish, such that he later refers to them as הָעֵדָ֤ה הָֽרָעָה֙ הַזֹּ֔את, “that evil community” (Num. 14:27), considered one of the sources identifying a minyan, a prayer quorum, as 10 people, according to the Talmud, Tractate Megillah 23b).
OK, so we know the end of the story: ultimately, the Israelites end up in Israel. But the problem at this particular moment in the Torah’s narrative is that this inaccurate, inflammatory report generates fear among the people. They are suddenly not so sure that they want to inherit the land which has been promised to them, particularly if doing so will guarantee that they will be squashed like bugs.
On Shabbat afternoon in Jerusalem, after I had attended a spirited service at Shira Hadasha, had a lovely picnic lunch with some other trip participants, and managed a wee Shabbat shlof (nap), I attended a shi’ur with Rabbi Danny Schiff, who spoke about the themes of optimism and hope as presented in this tale from Shelaḥ Lekha, and seasoned with yet another great passage from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. This one is from his book, To Heal a Fractured World:
A morality of hope lives in the belief that we can change the world for the better, and without certain theological beliefs it is hard to see where hope could come from, if not from optimism. Optimism and hope are not the same. Optimism is the belief that the world is changing for the better; hope is the belief that, together, we can make the world better. Optimism is a passive virtue, hope an active one. It needs no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to hope. The Hebrew Bible is not an optimistic book. It is, however, one of the great literatures of hope.
Kalev and Yehoshua are agents of hope. They know that, although there are certainly perils which await the Israelites in the land, they are still hopeful that they can overcome them.
The extraordinarily timely question before us is, what is the story we tell about Israel? Do we tell the fearful story, the one about all the existential challenges facing the Jewish state, or do we tell the hopeful one? Do we expect that the political landscape of the Middle East will somehow change for the better, or do we rise to the challenge of making it change? Do we speak of Israel’s failures, and there are many, or do we catalog her hopes and dreams and successes?
On the last day of the mission, we heard a lecture by the journalist and author Matti Friedman, whose credits include five years working for the Associate Press bureau in Jerusalem until he became disillusioned with what the AP does in Israel. Friedman spoke about the perception that the AP and other media outlets create due to their hyper-focus on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Among the items he pointed out was the fact that the journalistic presence in Israel is much higher than in most places. The AP, for example, has about 40 staff members on the ground in Israel, a nation which, including the Palestinian territories, contains about 14 million people. That staffing figure is not too different from the number of AP employees in China, a nation that has roughly 100 times as many people. Meanwhile, the number of homicides in Jerusalem, including terrorist activity, is roughly one-tenth that of Indianapolis, a city about the same size as Jerusalem.
So our perception of how dangerous Jerusalem is, for example, or the human toll of the conflict there is blown vastly out of proportion merely by the number of AP stories generated in that city, while by comparison the world is not too concerned about violence in Indianapolis, which is far more dangerous.
This is of course not to say that we should not be concerned about the political situation in Jerusalem, or in Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinian territories and a final-status agreement there, or the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, and so forth. To be sure, we should be aware of and engaged with those issues, and of course make our voices heard where appropriate. But it is worth remembering that the way we speak of Israel, like the story of the ten “bad” chieftains following their reconnaissance mission, shape our understanding of and our relationship to the State of Israel today.
I have often described myself as an optimist. And I still am. But given R. Sacks’ definition, I think I might be more hopeful than optimistic. It is up to us not to wait for Mashiaḥ, to wait for peace to happen by itself, to wait for an equitable solution for all the 14 million people living on that tiny strip of land, but actually to make it happen.
And one way we act on that hope, according to Rabbi Sacks, is by committing ourselves to details of Jewish life, the mitzvot, the holy opportunities of our tradition. These details – actions, learning, ritual – not only sensitize us to the needs of others around us and to the values which we uphold, but also remind us of our essential connection to that land, even from so far away in the Diaspora. And they also teach us that hope requires us to be involved, not merely playing armchair philosopher or engaging in online back-and-forth, but actually doing something: being involved with a community, with other people, visiting the land of Israel, committing our resources through charitable contributions or other means.
I have hope for Israel. I have hope which overcomes fear.
And I have the mitzvot, the details of Jewish life, which continue to keep us engaged and active, and maintain that hope.
And I have hatiqvah bat shenot alpayim, the hope that comes from 2,000 years of yearning within the Jewish soul, which helped to create the State of Israel and so too will ultimately forge a better world.
A curious phenomenon emerged a number of years ago, identified by the author Mike Godwin, and ultimately labeled “Godwin’s Law of Nazi Analogies.” Godwin’s observation is that the longer an online discussion continues, the likelihood that one participant will call another a Nazi or compare them to Hitler goes to one – that is, inevitably that will happen if the argument continues for a while.
What Godwin was effectively saying was that we have become so accustomed to calling other people Nazis that it has become a standard part of our discourse. Seinfeld’s infamous “Soup Nazi” episode, in 1995, may very well have exacerbated the problem.
Really nothing rises to the unique brand of evil that the Nazis created. Has there been attempted genocide? Yes. Have there been anti-Semitic, racist, and fascist-leaning governments, with charismatic authoritarian leaders? Unquestionably.
But let’s face it: applying the “Nazi” label to anyone (except, I suppose, to neo-Nazis who where it proudly) is ridiculously hyperbolic, and also extraordinarily unhelpful. A corollary to Godwin’s Law is that as soon as you have called somebody else a Nazi, you have lost the argument.
In today’s environment, where mind-numbing quantities of information and opinion and spin blur together on our screens, people who are desperate to get their point across can sometimes only succeed in getting your attention by throwing around grossly inaccurate, inflammatory language.
This phenomenon is truly unfortunate, and Jewish tradition has what to say about this. Just as a starting point, we read a few weeks back in Parashat Mishpatim (Shemot / Exodus 23:7)
Midevar sheqer tirḥaq, venaqi vetzaddik al taharog…
Distance yourself from a false matter; and the innocent and righteous you shall not slay …
Connecting the first and second parts of the verse, we should read this as saying that deliberate misrepresentation can kill innocent people. We know the power, and the danger, of words. If a statement is so wildly hyperbolic as to be untrue, we should not repeat it.
In recent years, you may have heard people applying equally inflammatory language to the State of Israel: “Apartheid.” “Genocide.” “Settler colonialist state.” “Ethnic cleansing.”
You may have heard that a few weeks back, around the same time as the Whoopi Goldberg debacle, the human rights organization Amnesty International issued a report that declared that the State of Israel is carrying out a campaign of “apartheid” against the Palestinian people. Amnesty is not the first organization to accuse Israel of apartheid crimes – Human Rights Watch issued a similar report last year, as did the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. And, perhaps most notoriously, President Jimmy Carter published a book in 2006 entitled, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.
Just a brief refresher: “Apartheid,” an Afrikaans word for “separateness,” was the legally-enshrined racial categorization system that functioned in South Africa for nearly five decades in the 20th century. Under apartheid, all citizens were categorized into four distinct races: White, Black, Indian, and Coloured, and laws about whom you could marry, where you could live and work, how you could vote and for whom, were all a part of that system. It was a system that was fundamentally unjust, denying non-white people many of the rights that we all agree should be universal.
According to Amnesty International’s website, the definition of apartheid has been generalized:
The crime against humanity of apartheid … is committed when any inhuman or inhumane act (essentially a serious human rights violation) is perpetrated in the context of an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over another, with the intention to maintain that system.
Now, I’m sure that we do not have to think too hard to come up with other nations that might be guilty of this type of inhumane mistreatment. China is clearly one, and the context of the Olympics has elevated the plight of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province. According to Amnesty’s definition of apartheid, I can think of some people in this country who might even apply it here in the United States.
The only nation for which Amnesty has used the term “apartheid” other than Israel is Myanmar, a nation that has been in nearly constant civil war and sectarian fighting since its founding in 1948, subjected to coup after military coup, and has meanwhile severely persecuted its Rohingya Muslim population.
The Amnesty report blurs the line between Israel’s Arab citizens, who are of course also ethnically Palestinian, and the residents of the territories of Gaza and the West Bank.
When I was in an Israeli family court in the Israeli-Arab city of Nazareth in 2006 to resolve an agreement over mezonot (child support) for my Israeli son, the presiding judge was a Muslim Israeli Arab. Arab citizens of the State of Israel participate in Israeli democracy (remember that there is currently an Arab Islamist party in the governing coalition), they attend Israeli universities, serve as doctors and lawyers and academics and musicians and journalists and soccer stars, and some even serve in the IDF.
Is there discrimination in Israeli society? Yes there is, just like there is here in America, and in France, and in Brazil, and India, and all over the world. But you would have to twist reality to claim that within Israel, there is a system of apartheid, at least by South African standards.
Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am party, that Arab Islamist party that is currently a part of the governing coalition, when asked if Israel is an apartheid state, clearly said no, it is not.
The application of that term by those organizations is somewhat akin to Godwin’s Law – it is an attempt to get the world’s attention with language that makes us respond in anger or disgust.
Now, it is true that in the Israeli-controlled territory of the West Bank, Palestinian Arab residents live in vastly different circumstances, and the thorny question regarding how to resolve the challenges posed by Israel’s occupation of territories captured in 1967 continues to roil the region and the world.
But while pointing out the failures of the current approach is essential, some critics of Israel have gone too far. As distant as it may seem right now, the two-state solution is still the best possible option available for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That’s in large part because the alternatives are even less plausible. And of course there is a great deal of fear, anger, intransigence and inertia all around that continue to make the challenge even greater.
And yes, both Palestinians and Israelis continue to suffer greatly because of these failures. But broadcasting extreme positions help no one – they only exacerbate tensions all around, and cause even more intransigence.
We all know that the situation on the ground for all of the 15 million people in the region is heartbreaking, in so many ways.
But we absolutely cannot give up on finding and building the best solution possible under the circumstances. We cannot allow the failures of the past and the inertia of the present to prevent us from building a sustainable Palestinian state alongside a safe and secure Israel.
And we will never be able to achieve this if we continue to hurl inflammatory language which is meant to inflict spiritual wounds and distort reality. Midevar sheqer tirḥaq. Distance yourself from falsehood.
If we truly want to arrive at an equitable solution, everybody is just going to have to cool it with the extreme rhetoric. Using terms like “apartheid,” and yes, “anti-Semitic” is not helpful. All the more so terms like the completely unsupportable “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing” or the inscrutable “settler colonial state.” (By the way, if you live anywhere in the Western Hemisphere and think that Israel should be dismantled because it’s a “settler colonial state,” you might want to consider moving overseas, because you too are living in a settler colonial state.
It is perfectly reasonable to be critical of Israel, but not in a way that supports those who want to destroy her, and certainly not in a way that just provokes more anger and fear and obstinacy. Our goals should be to bring everybody back to the negotiating table.
One of the principles we encounter in Parashat Vayaqhel, as the Israelites are building the mishkan, is that all of the work and materials are donated by those who are “kol nediv libo” (Shemot / Exodus 35:5). The Sefat Emet, the late 19th-century Torah commentary by the Gerrer Rebbe, teaches us that this means that the Israelites who contributed brought not only the materials, but also their willing hearts.
There are many, many people around the world who care about the future of the State of Israel and the fate of the territories. We all need to bring our willing hearts, so that the State of Israel can continue to thrive, and all those who dwell in that land can be free.
We must reject those who place obstacles on the path to peace with flagrant mischaracterizations and distortions of the Israeli and Palestinian reality. Israel is not an apartheid state. Now let’s roll up our sleeves, and in the words of Psalm 34, בַּקֵּ֖שׁ שָׁל֣וֹם וְרׇדְפֵֽהוּ – Baqqesh shalom verodfehu – seek peace and pursue it.
Although I have been a rabbi for more than 14 years, I have never delivered a sermon on Shabbat Ḥanukkah, because I am almost always in Israel at this time, visiting my Israeli son. And, by the way, I am happy to report that he has been granted leave from the IDF to come visit us in Pittsburgh in a little more than a week. I have not seen him in nearly two years.
Something that I’ve noticed in Israel during Ḥanukkah is that the popular messaging there about the holiday is a little different than it is here. In America, Ḥanukkah is about candles and presents. There, it’s more about the historical victory over Greek culture. Not the military aspect, so much as the Maccabees’ success in taking back Jewish life from the Hellenistic influence of the Seleucid Empire and the Hellenized Jews who were in favor of assimilation. That is, the celebration of Ḥanukkah is a statement of, “We are the Jews who lean into our history and tradition, and do not seek to assimilate into the surrounding culture.”
It’s a theme that I think tends to get lost in America, when the very celebration of Ḥanukkah here derives so much from its overbearing Christian cousin. Ironically, we mark Ḥanukkah here with practices born of assimilation.
I am reading right now author Dara Horn’s new book, People Love Dead Jews, a collection of essays about the fascination that we and the rest of the world have with the tales of Jewish persecution, murder, and genocide.
In her chapter on the anti-Semitism of the Soviet Union, she distinguishes between what she calls “the Ḥanukkah version of anti-Semitism” and “the Purim version of anti-Semitism.” Ḥanukkah anti-Semitism is that which destroys Jewish civilization from the inside by pressuring Jews to gradually become non-Jews, while Purim anti-Semitism is a little bit more direct: kill all the Jews.
The Ḥanukkah version, perhaps more subtle, is accomplished by what is described in the first chapter of the I Maccabees (1:14-15). The Hellenized authorities convinced some of the Jews to build a gymnasium in Jerusalem (according to the gentile custom, notes the book), and some Jewish men reversed their circumcisions so they could compete at the gym, and spurned the Torah and its berit, our covenant with God.
So amidst all of the fun we have here, imitating our Christian neighbors by layering gift upon gift (as, I am told, some do for “eight crazy nights”), one might see how this message gets lost. (Not that I am impugning this practice – I’m mostly just bitter because my parents never gave me gifts for Ḥanukkah.)
But Ms. Horn is not far off: assimilation has, throughout history, created a powerful gravitational force that has pulled many Jews away from Judaism and out of Jewish life. While we have signed up eagerly for this kind of assimilation here in the Land of the Free, the Soviet Union, and the czars before it employed this sort of anti-Semitic tactic to solve what they perceived to be their Jewish problem.
So that’s one side of Ḥanukkah. But then there is the other side, one that perhaps we might have a better feel for in this corner of the world: the symbol of light, and our duty, while we are busy not assimilating ourselves out of existence, to make sure that we act in a way which illuminates the world.
On the Tuesday evening before Thanksgiving, we held the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving service here at Beth Shalom, and I am happy to say that a handful of Beth Shalom members were there, along with folks from many other local faith communities.
Rabbi Mark Goodman, in his role as the Director of Derekh, coordinated the service with some of our interfaith partners, but this year’s program was much less a religious ceremony and much more an opportunity to learn about all sorts of local social service organizations that are performing good works in our city.
Among the fourteen organizations represented were such groups as
the Alliance for Humanitarian Initiatives, Nonviolence and Spiritual Advancement
Repair the World
Days for Girls
Foundation of Hope
Casa San Jose
and so forth. Each was given a few minutes to introduce themselves, and after the brief ceremony, participants were encouraged to speak to representatives of the organizations.
One presenter, Cheryl Lowitzer of Open Hand Ministries, told a captivating story. Open Hand’s mission is to help bridge the wealth gap between black and white Pittsburghers by among other things, helping black families to buy homes. Most of us know how complicated buying and owning a home is. But for families who were excluded from home ownership by various means (e.g. redlining) for generations, the obstacles are much higher.
Among the things that Open Hand Ministries does is to help candidates with budgeting, reducing their debt, determining and improving credit scores, managing mortgages, and so forth. They also help families with repairing homes, using their own contractors at reduced rates. As Cheryl described it, the overarching goal of Open Hand is to help people manage their money so that it does not manage them.
Ms. Lowitzer told the story of one 60-year-old woman, whom they helped to buy her family’s first home ever. Upon achieving her goal, the woman remarked, “I’ve been paying for someone else’s dream for over 20 years. Now I’m going to fulfill my own dream.”
This is an organization that is truly making a difference in people’s lives, and I was grateful for the opportunity to learn about Open Hand, and the other organizations present that evening.
You may know that the psalm most closely associated with Ḥanukkah is Psalm 30, which opens with (Tehillim / Psalms 30:1)
מִזְמ֡וֹר שִׁיר־חֲנֻכַּ֖ת הַבַּ֣יִת לְדָוִֽד׃
A psalm of David. A song for the dedication of the House.
The word חנוכה / Ḥanukkah means, literally, “dedication. The “bayit” (house) referred to here is the Beit HaMiqdash, the Temple in Jerusalem. Given that the psalm may have been written 800 years before anybody had heard of a Maccabee, it is clearly not referring to the dedication in the Ḥanukkah story, but more likely the original ḥanukkat habayit, the dedication of the First Temple, built by Shelomoh haMelekh, King Solomon.
But if you can imagine how powerful it must have been for this woman to dedicate her own house, fulfilling a dream that neither she nor her parents or grandparents or great-grandparents have been able to fulfill, that might give you a sense of the power of Ḥanukkah, the power of light over darkness.
Further down in Psalm 30, we read (v. 6)
בָּ֭עֶרֶב יָלִ֥ין בֶּ֗כִי וְלַבֹּ֥קֶר רִנָּֽה׃
Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning. (KJV*)
Light is a symbol of the victory over the dark; although we may suffer in dark times, redemption is always there, around the corner.
But symbols must lead to action. Joy doth not come with the light, unless we maketh it do so. If the Ḥanukkah candles do not lead us to a place where we do something concrete, something where we actually improve the quality of life of people near us, then we have missed the point. If we allow Ḥanukkah, or any Jewish holiday, merely to wash over us in joy and gifts and over-consumption of greasy foods, then we have not heeded the message.
Our goal in this season, as much as it should be to maintain our traditions, to remember our berit, our covenant, to resist assimilation by passing on moments of joy and gravitas and prayer to our children, should also be to act. To make a difference. To cast more light through action. To bring about ḥanukkat habayit – figuratively or literally to help dedicate a house.
A joyous and meaningful Ḥanukkah to you all, and may you be re-dedicated in this season to improving the lives of others.
Many of my rabbinic colleagues give a sermon about Israel over the course of the High Holidays. I have generally not done so for two reasons: (א) because I give sermons about Israel from time to time throughout the year, and (ב) because the High Holidays seem like the best time to talk about the ways in which Jewish living can enrich your life and our world. So many of us make it to Jewish adulthood without deriving meaning from our customs and rituals, and since most of us are paying attention on the High Holidays, this is the time when I feel I must teach about the essential value and meaning of our tradition.
However, I noticed an opening this year that needs to be addressed. (Or, “needs addressed,” in local parlance.) Our theme this year is, “Make it Meaningful!” and Israel is very, very meaningful to me as a part of what it means to be Jewish today, and I know that Israel is meaningful to many of you as well. But I am, I must confess, a little concerned that it may not be meaningful enough for some of us. I am concerned that American Jews are drifting away from Israel.
And all the more so for me personally right now, since my oldest son, Oryah, is serving in the Israel Defense Forces, in the Ḥeil haTotḥanim, the artillery brigade. So I have, you might say, quite a bit of skin in the game at this particular moment. It’s worth noting that, come November, we will have two more young members of our congregation serving in the IDF: Naomi Kitchen and Ari Gilboa. That is actually a fairly significant group of ḥayyalim, Israeli soldiers directly connected to Congregation Beth Shalom.
Not only am I the father of an Israeli soldier, I am also a proud Zionist. I fell in love with the State of Israel – the people, the land, the culture, the optimistic idea of a modern Jewish state in the historical land of the Jewish people, built on the yearnings and hope of 2,000 years – I fell in love upon touching down at Ben Gurion Airport for my first visit there in the summer of 1987 when I was a participant in the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. And that love only deepened when I returned there as an adult to live and study there in 1999.
Not only am I a proud Zionist, but I am also concerned for the welfare of ALL all the people on that tiny strip of land. I have spent time working as an idealistic volunteer on kibbutz, and climbed Masada multiple times and studied every aspect and angle of the contemporary Israeli story and hiked from the Kinneret / Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean. I have also visited Israeli Arab and Druze villages, engaged with light political chatter with Palestinian citizens, been in a forum with Palestinian Authority politicians, been to West Bank locales such as Ḥevron and Mt. Gerizim and Jewish settlements and was once even turned back by Palestinian police at the crossing point while trying to visit Shechem, also known as Nablus. I have been and have experienced, in the words of the Israeli author Amos Oz, פה ושם בארץ ישראל, here and there in the land of Israel.
52% of American Jews over 50 consider “caring about Israel” to be “essential” to being Jewish, while only 35% of those under 30 do.
For the over-50 crowd, only 10% say Israel is not important to their Jewish identity, while for those under 30, that figure is 27%, nearly three times as much.
The handful of us in the American Jewish community who remember the 1940s know that we helped make the State of Israel a reality. There were the American fighter pilots who volunteered to serve. The Americans who donated to help build the new state. The Pittsburghers, who, as described in our member Dr. Barbara Burstin’s books on the history of our community, created a major hub of Zionist activity all the way back to the 1890s. Dr. Burstin assures me that Pittsburgh was second only to New York in terms of Zionist fervor and support, with a range of organizations and activities.
That is our legacy here.
But for many American Jews today, Israel is far away and not so consequential; for some Israel is no longer a source of pride. And that is what I find truly disheartening.
And one more brief “not only”: Not only am I concerned that disengagement of the American Jewish community is a threat to the future of Israel, I am also concerned that whatever I say about Israel, I am going to disappoint a whole bunch of people, and perhaps anger a few as well. While once upon a time, an Israel-based sermon was an easy slam dunk, today many rabbis actually shy away from talking about Israel from the pulpit for that reason.
Consider the pop singer Billie Eilish, who, in promoting her new album last month, created a series of brief videos on TikTok aimed at her fans in different countries. In the one addressed to her fans in the Israeli market, where there are apparently plenty of Billie Eilish fans, she said, ““Hi Israel, this is Billie Eilish, and I’m so excited that my new album, Happier Than Ever, is out now.” In doing so, a Twitter-storm erupted of people calling her out, for saying nothing more than, “Hi, Israel.” How dare she even attempt to sell albums to Israelis?
Of course, Billie Eilish is not a rabbi, and the membership of Beth Shalom is hardly akin to a Twitter mob. As one who has had a life-long love affair with Israel, with all its attendant complexity and angst, and as a cheerleader for Jewish tradition, my task is to tell you not only why Israel is so meaningful to me, but why it should be for you as well.
We are going to consider the meaning in our relationship with Israel from three different perspectives: Jewish tradition, Jewish power, and Jewish culture.
At the simplest level, we cannot separate our connection to the land of Israel from our Jewishness. Certainly the arc of the Torah, and indeed the entire Tanakh / Hebrew bible, revolves around getting to or returning to Eretz Yisrael. And from the time that the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE, and hastened the Jewish dispersion all over the world, much of Jewish creativity – the Talmud, midrash, commentaries, liturgy, music and art – has been focused on the yearning for return and rebuilding our land.
On virtually every page of every siddur / prayerbook, including the maḥzor many of you hold in your hand right now, this yearning is evident. Consider what you just recited a few moments ago in the Amidah, words which we recite in every Amidah, at least three times on every day of the year:
And may our eyes behold Your merciful return to Zion.
The addressee here is, of course, God; but the implication is that if God returns to Israel, so might we as well. (By the way, I’ll never forget seeing those words inscribed on the wall in the secret synagogue found at Terezin, the Nazi concentration camp not far from Prague.)
Or, right before the Shema, as we say every morning (we’ll say this tomorrow at about 9:20 AM.:
Raḥem al Tziyyon ki hi beit ḥayyeinu. Vela’aluvat nefesh toshia bimheira veyameinu.
Have mercy upon Zion, for it is the source of our life; and for the downtrodden of spirit bring salvation speedily in our days.
Zion is not merely some fantastical poetic reference. It is the land of our ancestors. It is the very real place that hosted the establishment of the Jewish people. It was our homeland for a thousand years, thereafter occupied by one empire after another for nearly 2,000 more, with continuous Jewish settlement (at times minimal) throughout that period.
In exile, this yearning for the land of Israel has been our inspiration and salvation and essential Earthly link to our tradition and to God as long as Jews have existed. Our connection to the land is not only inseparable from our tradition, but it has soaked every siddur / prayerbookwith tears for two thousand years.
And, with the modern Zionist movement, which began a century and a half ago in Eastern Europe, the establishment of a Jewish State in that land has become a central plank in what it means to be a contemporary Jew.
Of course, the establishment of this state has come with its share of challenges, some of which the early Zionists anticipated, and some they did not, pre-eminent among them the challenge of creating a respectful living situation for the Arabs who live alongside our people in that land.
For virtually all of the last two millennia, our people were powerless exiles, and in some cases even refugees. We were subjects of empires, kings and queens, and feudal lords, and lived at their mercy. We survived, but we managed to do so with our wits, while clinging steadfastly to our tradition and to each other.
Our powerlessness enabled the Crusaders’ slaughter, the Expulsion from Spain, the medieval blood libels, and the pogroms. Our powerlessness permitted the Nazis to actually calculate the number of Deutschmarks required to kill each Jew; to realize that one bullet per dead Jew shot by the Einzatsgruppen was too expensive, and hence the use of Zyklon B poison gas and BMW engine exhaust in the death camps.
But, in the wake of the Shoah / Holocaust, in which 6 million of our people were murdered due to their powerlessness, the desperation that our people felt aroused the sympathy of much of the world. Although the return to Zion had begun more than 80 years prior, it was to some extent this sympathy, which played out in the League of Nations partition plan vote on November 29, 1947, that allowed David Ben Gurion to establish the State five and a half months later.
And suddenly the Jews had sovereign state power. But power is complicated. Power requires making ethical choices, sometimes between two bad possible outcomes. The State of Israel is a democracy with a thriving set of checks on power – free elections, a free press, free academia, the rule of law, a court system. Tzahal, the Israel Defense Forces, has a principle of “tohar haneshek,” the purity of arms, that is, the soldier’s obligation to maintain her/his humanity in combat. As a result, there is healthy internal evaluation and criticism of Israel’s military choices.
When I was living in Israel in the summer of 2000, the Camp David Summit broke down with no resolution. The Second Intifada began a few weeks later. In that context, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, speaking to the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities in November, 2000, on “The Ethics of Jewish Power Today,” said the following:
Jewish power is never self-validating, so we have to sit in continual judgment upon ourselves… [And] given the evil that cannot be avoided, there is still some best possible or least evil way of exercising power.
In an ideal world, all people would be treated absolutely equally. In the real world, you distribute your priorities and in fact it may be that some people will get a shorter stick than others. What makes this moral is you try to do the best you can.
Secondly, you have a continuous process of correction. In a democracy you have elections or you have a free press or other forms of correction, and therefore whatever flaws there are subject to further improvement and further correction. So you have to have both. And the criteria of the moral person is the one who consciously makes those kinds of choices…
So that means in the real world I may err trying to protect the security, overreact and even inflict pain or damage. The criteria of morality is I try to inflict as little as possible and I try to maximize the good. Keep in mind that’s the balance wheel to the other principle, which is that we are only human and we can’t be perfect, so we are going to make some mistakes, which we are then going to go on and try to correct or try to have some mechanism of correction.
No, Israel is not perfect. But yes, Israel’s democratic process is trying to do the right thing, balancing all the moral criteria with the fact that sometimes people make mistakes.
Remember the Nazi calculation of how much it cost to murder each Jew, that one bullet per Jew was too much? How much did the State of Israel pay to bring the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel? By one calculation, $35 million was paid to the leader of Ethiopia in 1991 for 14,000 Jews. That was, to put it bluntly, a bribe, just to allow the Jews to leave, and did not account for the price of the airlift itself, or the resettlement in Israel, or all the other ancillary services required.
That is the meaning of Jewish power. So which would you rather have? A situation in which, at any moment, Jews may need to flee out of fear of persecution or expulsion, and have no place to go, as has happened so many times in our history? Or a reality in which there is a sanctuary, even an imperfect one, where the doors are always open? Medieval powerlessness, or the power to be responsible for our own destiny, for better or for worse?
Perhaps the greatest value of the State of Israel, and the easiest for Diaspora Jews to appreciate, is its thriving culture. I hope you are familiar with some of the pop-culture products that Israel has exported to the world, particularly the television series (some of which you can find on various streaming services) and films and music and dance.
When I lived in Israel as an adult, now more than 20 years ago, I discovered that Israel’s culture is not merely thriving, but vital; Hebrew rock blasts from outdoor cafes; the theater and dance scene is fresh and exciting; the contemporary architecture is unique and distinctly Israeli. No Jewish Diaspora subculture, even in the mighty United States, the second-largest Jewish population, has come even close to creating as vibrant and distinctive a culture as Israel has. Israel’s entrepreneurial spirit, hatched by necessity from the hardscrabble existence which new olim / immigrants have always faced, is evident in all the ways that Israelis express their singularly Jewish, home-grown national culture.
The vision of Israel as a cultural center, a merkaz ruḥani, did not belong to Theodor Herzl. Rather, it is the vision of one of Zionism’s earliest and greatest internal critics: the essayist and thinker Ahad Ha’am.
What is a nation without culture? Ahad Ha’am saw Herzl and some of the other leaders of political Zionism as focused on the wrong thing. In his essay from 1888 (!), Lo zu haderekh (“This is not the way”), he took them to task for focusing merely on bringing people to Israel, and not considering what they would do once they arrived. Rather, Ahad Ha’am was laser-focused on drawing on our history and literature to fashion a contemporary Hebrew culture, and the strength of this culture and its values would ultimately lead them to want to face the much greater challenge of building a Jewish national home in Eretz Yisrael.
And, to some extent, when I look at Israeli culture today, when I listen to Israeli hip-hop or enjoy an Israeli wine, I think of Ahad Ha’am and his idea of the merkaz ruḥani. Israel is my spiritual and cultural center.
I could speak all night on Israel (and let’s face it: it’s Yom Kippur – what else are you doing tonight?). But I want to add one final note, from Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs from the Labor Party, Dr. Nachman Shai. In a recent blog post on the Times of Israel website, Dr. Shai suggested that rabbis share with their congregants over these High Holidays that Israel wants to make amends for ways in which it may have failed Diaspora Jews, particularly non-Orthodox Jews like us:
Share with your congregants that we in Israel are slowly but surely taking responsibility for our side of the relationship in a way that you have never seen, that we realize we have disappointed you and are doing teshuvah, repentance, with a sincere desire to make things right in the future. Share with them that this new government is committed to bringing back a Kotel Compromise — that is, formalizing an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall. It is committed to learning and understanding how our actions impact your communities. Tell them that we believe in you and that we are ready for both your critique and your ideas.
Most importantly, share with your communities that Israel desires to be your partner, to not let our politics or diverse identities serve as barriers to our fundamental belief that we are a people with a common fate and destiny.
I am grateful that Dr. Shai is beginning the process of reaching out to the Diaspora, and in particular the American Jewish community, to, I hope, repair the broken aspects of our relationship with the State of Israel. I am also hopeful that the new coalition (still holding together! And including an Arab party for the first time in Israel’s history) will be good for that relationship.
How do we make Israel meaningful? Through understanding the lenses of ancient Jewish yearning, the ethical pitfalls of Jewish power, and the joy of resonating with Jewish culture.
But most importantly, by going there. By experiencing Ahad Ha’am’s merkaz ruḥani personally.
Go there. See the land, the historical sites. But also, speak to the people. All the people – the Jews (so many varieties of Jews!), the Palestinians, the Druze, the Circassians, the Armenian Christians, the Filipino nurses, the Chinese and Romanian hired laborers, and on and on. Get to know them and understand the challenges that they face on a daily basis. And you will soon see that beyond the spin, beyond the this-side-or-that-side-ism, beyond the seemingly insoluble political challenges, there are 13 million people on that small strip of land trying to make a living, trying to enjoy time with their families, trying to eke out some kind of respectful existence.
If we could only somehow convince all the extremists in our midst to consider the others around them, we would have a chance to make peace blossom and solve the deep, genuine challenges that the region faces. Alas.
We at Beth Shalom put together a congregational trip to Israel three years ago, and it was a fantastic success. We will have another such trip in the next couple of years, but meanwhile, you might also want to consider going on the Federation Mega Mission next June. (If you’re going on that trip, please let me know.)
In 1948, David Ben Gurion was faced with the decision of when to declare independence, knowing that in doing so the neighboring Arab armies would invade the new state. He asked his friend and adviser, Yitzḥak Tabenken, what he should do. Tabenken answered that he would respond in a few days, after he consulted a few other people. When he returned, he told Ben Gurion that it was imperative that Ben Gurion declare the new state right now.
Later, when Ben Gurion asked him whom he had consulted, Tabenken responded, “I spoke to my deceased grandparents, and my as-yet-unborn grandchildren, and asked them, ‘What do I owe you?’”
Seventy-three-and-a-half years later, we owe it to our people, to ourselves, to be in meaningful relationship with Israel. And how do we do that? By knowing and understanding the Jewish state. By engaging with her culture, her politics, her successes and challenges. By being intimately familiar with her people, her history, her complexity. Yes, by appreciating the value and responsibility of Jewish power. And by continuing to yearn through the words of prayer and tradition.
Make it meaningful!
Shanah tovah! May you be sealed for a 5782 that is full of meaning.
If you will allow me to take the anachronistic liberty of ascribing a contemporary movement to an ancient text, Devarim / Deuteronomy is easily the most Zionist book of the Torah. Moshe is delivering a series of lectures to the Israelites after they have been wandering through the desert for nearly four decades, and now they are perched on the far side of the Jordan river awaiting for the instruction to cross over and re-enter the land that has been promised to them.
And Moshe’s message is intimately connected to the land, with constant reminders that an essential part of our people’s berit / covenant with God is the inheritance of this land. For example, as we read this morning in Parashat Vaetḥannan (Devarim /Deuteronomy 6:1):
This is the mitzvah, the laws and the rules, that God has commanded [me] to impart to you, to be observed in the land that you are about to cross into and inherit.
The land and the mitzvot are intimately connected in that Divine relationship between God and the people of Israel; they go together. And it is this sense of connection which inspired our ancestors over the last 2,000 years, in all their wanderings, to remain loyal to our tradition, to keep the memory of the land of Israel in our hearts and minds and on our tongues. It is the ancient yearning for the perfection of this holy formula which yielded the best-known poem of Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, who in the 12th century, the story goes, left Spain (“sof ma’arav,” the end of the West, according to him) to journey across the Mediterranean. He certainly arrived in Egypt, and a legend has it that he died in the Land of Israel, trampled by a horse as he kneeled to kiss the holy earth of Jerusalem.
In more contemporary times, in the middle of the 19th century, before any steel emerged from Pittsburgh factories, this ancient yearning spurred the first wave of our people to escape the misery of the shtetl and move to Ottoman Turkish Palestine.
And it is this ancient yearning that brought greater numbers of aliyah following the wave of Czarist programs in the early 1880s, and again in the early 1900s. And in particular, after the Shoah, when European Jewish refugees and displaced persons needed a safe haven, there was Palestine. Now in British hands, there was a well-developed economy, agricultural collectives, and bustling cities. Survivors of the European attempt at genocide defied the British blockade to enter the land of their ancestors, and soon fought for and won independence.
It is with great dismay that I read this week of the account in Jerusalem, at the location adjacent to the traditional Kotel / Western Wall that has been set up as a temporary location for egalitarian prayer. A Masorti (that’s the Conservative movement outside of North America) group was holding a service for Tish’ah BeAv, chanting Eikhah, the Book of Lamentations, when a group of zealous Orthodox folks invaded the space and set up a meḥitzah (the separation barrier between men and women found in Orthodox synagogues), shouted and sang and disrupted the Masorti service. It is especially upsetting that on the day on which we commemorate the destruction of the Second Temple due to sin’at ḥinnam, baseless hatred, that at the very spot where the Temple stood until the year 70 CE, that such intolerance would be on display so vividly.
And it is with even more dismay that I learned of Ben & Jerry’s decision to suspend sales of their ice cream products in West Bank settlements. It makes me wonder if they have also suspended sales in other disputed territories such as Crimea, North Cyprus, Kashmir, Tibet, and so forth.
The move is clearly only symbolic – who cares whether or not residents of Ma’ale Adummim have access to Cherry Garcia? And, by the way, you’ll still be able to buy New York Super Fudge Chunk in Jerusalem, a short drive away. But it points to the powerful voices of Israel’s critics in calling attention to who does business in the territories, a plank in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.
But my greatest and most surprising source of dismay this past week, by far, was from a poll produced by the Jewish Electoral Institute, a non-partisan group which, according to its website, is “dedicated to deepening the public’s understanding of Jewish American participation in our democracy,” primarily through polling. This survey found, among other things, that in a recent poll of 800 Jewish voters, 25% agreed with the statement, “Israel is an apartheid state,” and, more shockingly, 22% agree with the statement, “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians.”
In its coverage of the survey, the Forward noted that while the Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow is comfortable with the “apartheid” label, even they were surprised by the “genocide” statement.
To be clear, as in all democratic countries with heterogeneous populations, Israel struggles with inequalities within society. But there is no government policy of racial segregation. However, hearing Israel described as “an apartheid state,” or a “colonialist settler state,” as is fashionable in some circles, is like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.
Certainly some of our South African members can reassure us that Israeli society is nothing like the apartheid era in South Africa. Most likely, when I went before an Arab judge in Family Court in Israel for approval for the child support agreement for my Israeli son, that judge would have been very surprised by the “apartheid” descriptor. And so too the Arab doctors and nurses who worked in the hospital in Beersheva where my son was born. And so too the Druze soldiers who bravely and loyally serve in the IDF, and Justice George Karra, the Christian Arab who serves on the Israeli Supreme Court, and of course Member of Kenesset Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am party, now the first Arab and the first Islamist party to join the majority coalition of the Israeli government. I don’t think any of those folks can credibly use the word “apartheid” to describe Israel.
But “genocide”? We, the Jews, we know genocide, and however you may feel about Israel and the Palestinians’ failure to come to a negotiated settlement, we know that applying the word “genocide” is obscenely hyberbolic, and plays on anti-Jewish stereotypes.
My father-in-law survived Auschwitz; many more of my relatives did not. Where are the camps in Israel? Where are the cattle cars delivering non-Jews to the gas chambers? Where are the laws preventing Arabs from going to school, or owning property, or holding government positions, or even dating or marrying Jews? Where are the fields of slaughter, the Einsatzgruppen, the ghettoes?*
There are none of these things, of course. So how could it come to be that 22%, 176 of the respondents to this poll agreed with the statement, “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians”?
The only possible answer, hevreh, is that we have failed. We have failed in the education of our own people, and we have failed just as much in getting out in front of the message. For people who know only ongoing conflict in the region, and who only see the reported body counts, of course Israel looks like the bad guy. But it is perversely reductive to see the side with the higher body count as the victim and the other as the bad guy.
We have failed when those of us who do not know our history are hornswoggled by extreme voices applying the word genocide to Israel and consequently to Jews. We have failed in relaying the admittedly very complicated history of the establishment of the State of Israel, and the wars and terrorist attacks she has faced.
And of course this challenge is only made worse by the current political climate in America, where it seems that left and right are increasingly living in different worlds. Our political discourse on many issues seems like skewed lines: no chance of intersection, no apparent intention to ever seek common ground. I checked out Twitter this week for the first time in a while, and all I could see, for miles of tweets, was binary thinking. You’re either on this side or that side. There is no middle way. No attempt to reach out, only to score points against the other.
In this environment, we are going to lose the battle for the hearts and minds not only of Americans, but American Jews as well. Certainly, the majority of us still support Israel, and majorities of non-Jewish Americans as well. But the challenge of the binary approach to all things will make this battle even harder.
How might we approach this? I do not think that attempting to label anti-Israel speech as hate speech is the right path. Likewise, Israel advocacy, which is certainly good for Israel at least in the American political arena, will not solve this challenge either.
Rather, what we need is thoughtful engagement with history and the facts on the ground. And we also need to figure out how to get out in front of the message.
So how do we do that?
We need to make sure that we are teaching our students about Israel, presenting them with accurate material that gives an unbiased, factual telling of the Zionist project, both its strengths and its pitfalls. Perhaps there are organizations like the Peres Center for Peace in Israel who would be willing to create a curriculum for a broad audience – Jewish and non-Jewish – that would teach that story. We need to lean into the idea of peaceful coexistence – not too long ago that seemed like a nascent reality, and it can be again. We need to support institutions that are bringing people together for positive engagement between people, engagement that will lead to real partnership, and ultimately to peace.
Boycotts – by ice cream companies or against them – will not achieve anything other than more binary thinking, more Twitter-esque polarization. Our ancestral yearning for that land, and our sense of justice as Jews necessitates seeking new, creative approaches. We have the resources. Let’s do it.
בַּקֵּ֖שׁ שָׁל֣וֹם וְרׇדְפֵֽהוּ / Baqqesh shalom verodfehu, says the Psalmist (Tehillim / Psalms 34:15). Seek peace and pursue it.
* It has been pointed out to me, subsequent to my delivering this sermon, that genocide can take different forms; the method of the Nazis was not used by the Hutus against the Tutsis in Rwanda, for example. Nonetheless, what unites different forms of genocide, according to the United Nations’ definition, is the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Israel’s military response to Hamas rocket fire, for which she has received much criticism, does not meet that definition. If it were the IDF’s intent merely to kill innocent Palestinians in Gaza, it would certainly not, for example, provide warning signals of various types to residents of targeted buildings which contain terrorist infrastructure.
(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.
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:
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.
An interesting thing happened in Israel last week. No, not the ongoing saga of who will lead the country, which political parties will form a governing coalition in the wake of the fourth national election in two years, and the most inconclusive of all of them. That is interesting, but it’s dragging along, and quite frustrating for all observers of Israeli politics, and of course Israeli citizens.
Rather, this week included the annual days of mourning and celebration that are right next to each other: Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s memorial day for fallen soldiers, and Yom HaAtzma’ut, the day commemorating the State’s 73 years of independence. Yom HaZikaron is a somber day, with public ceremonies during which Israelis remember their family members and friends and colleagues and army comrades who gave their lives to build and protect their nation; the air raid siren sounds throughout the nation for two individual minutes, and all Israelis stop what they are doing to recall those who are gone. Yom HaAtzma’ut is a happy day, a day of barbecues and musical performances and giant, silly, blue-and-white inflatable plastic hammers. And since Yom HaAtzma’ut immediately follows Yom HaZikaron, the difference between the two days is stark, and one can actually feel the mood change as the sun sets on Yom HaZikaron, separating grief and remembrance from celebration and joy and national pride.
One of the challenges of reading Tazria-Metzora every year when they come around (and all the more so in years when we read them separately, so that we get two weeks of reading about skin diseases), is what to say about this. The rabbis just could not accept that the Torah should really be taken at face value here, but rather that the image of infectious affliction of the skin must be allegorical.
The Torah is otherwise terse. In many places it says so much with so little; in this case, the Torah seems to say so little of apparent relevance to us today with so much material. There are many such attempts to reinterpret the nega of tzara’at; perhaps the best-known was cited by Sylvia earlier in her devar Torah.
The Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Noah Berezovsky, a 20th-century Hasidic rabbi, in his take on Metzora, points to Sefer Yetzirah, a proto-kabbalistic text, for guidance. Sefer Yetzirah observes that the Hebrew word נגע / nega, affliction or disease, which appears many times in Tazria and Metzora (e.g. Lev. 14:32: זֹ֣את תּוֹרַ֔ת אֲשֶׁר־בּ֖וֹ נֶ֣גַע צָרָ֑עַת), is an inversion of the word ענג / oneg, meaning enjoyment.
Oneg is an expression of joy in engaging with our tradition (think “oneg Shabbat”), while nega is the exact opposite – a deficiency of engagement that is so weighty as to be a physical affliction. The Slonimer Rebbe extrapolates this further to say that investing ourselves in Jewish tradition – tefillah / prayer, Shabbat, kashrut, holidays and so forth, include the two components of (quoting the words from Psalm 34, which we sang earlier in today’s service) sur mera va’aseh tov. Repudiate evil and perform good deeds. We need both of those things to achieve oneg, enjoyment, and of course to avoid nega, affliction.
One of the things that the pandemic has done is to lay bare the stark difference between the oneg of our lives and the nega, the enjoyment and the affliction. We do not have to dig too deeply to come up with examples of how our lives have changed for better and for worse, and sometimes those things are right next to each other.
Some of us have improved ourselves and our world in this time. I would say that I have seen a greater effort on the part of many of us to perform charitable acts for others: to help out those who were homebound in this time, to reach out to friends in need, to be there as a comforting presence, even from a distance, to those who have suffered, to those who grieve lost loved ones, to those who have lost their livelihoods.
I was thinking about this when a heartwarming story floated across my desk about the largely white Fiji fraternity at Louisiana State University, 90 of whose alumni raised over $50,000 to pay off the mortgage of their longtime cook, a 74-year-old Black woman named Jessie Hamilton, who had been working two other jobs to make ends meet. This is a dramatic act of tzedaqah, but I suppose that one reason this made the news (including the New York Times) is that we are all so much more appreciative right now of such acts of generosity, in the wake of so much loss and grief.
Certainly many of us have become newly aware of the struggle for racial justice in America. While recent events suggest that there is still a long, hard road ahead of us in this regard, to guarantee the safety and education and equal treatment under the law for all of our citizens, nonetheless our public consciousness suggests that we now at least have the potential to move in the right direction.
It seems to me that many of us have also used this time of isolation to improve ourselves personally. I know that I have spent much more time making sure that I get enough exercise by taking regular walks in Frick Park (and I have seen many of my neighbors doing the same, even throughout the winter), and I have been cooking more (I make sourdough bread and fresh pasta regularly now), and I have also spent some time learning to play the banjo, something I hope to inflict on all of you soon enough. And I am sure that many of you have also engaged in similar pursuits.
So there is the oneg, the enjoyment. But we all know what the flip side of this is. We have plenty of nega / affliction to go around right now as well.
Some of those contemporary afflictions are the plague of misinformation, and the bad actors who are willing to put any falsehood out there via Internet, and the platforms that care only about their bottom line, with no sense of responsibility for how the spreading of misinformation is actually killing people. (By the way, whatever you may think of his method and brand of humor, the English-Jewish actor Sacha Baron Cohen has used his fame to call attention to the very real danger that Facebook, Twitter, et al have caused.)
And we cannot forget, of course, the lies told by public figures that led to the violent insurrection in Washington on January 6th. Our democracy has held, but the cost in lives lost and the invigoration of white nationalist groups that helped foment this attack is truly chilling.
And of course we probably know this anecdotally, but the emotional distress caused by isolation in this past year is great. It is likely that rates of depression, anxiety, domestic abuse and other social ills are much higher. CDC data released this week showed that overdose deaths from opioid abuse have jumped dramatically in the past year.
These are certainly variants of the nega, the affliction that the Torah goes on and on about in today’s parashah. We are greatly afflicted, and not only due to the loss of over 560,000 lives. We are greatly afflicted, even as some of us have found some oneg, some enjoyment. The oneg and the nega are proximate.
We are hopeful, of course, that we will see an end to this soon. And we certainly will, if we can get as many people vaccinated as possible as quickly as possibly. (Vaccine appointments are very easy to come by now. If you have not received a shot, you should push everything out of the way to do that now.)
And what comes next, of course, will depend on how thoughtful we are about the near future. Given the oneg and the nega of the past year and change, we should not lose out on the opportunity to move forward in a way that, shall we say, accentuates the oneg in our lives.
Sur mera va’aseh tov, says the Psalm. Repudiate evil and do good. As we begin to inch forward slowly into gathering at this time, we should keep the following principles before us:
Sur mera. Repudiate evil. We have to continue to keep each other safe through masking / social distancing, until such times as our public health authorities say that it is OK to let our guard down. The sooner we get our transmission rates down low, the sooner this will all be over. And that means, by the way, that if we know people who are on the fence about vaccination, we should reach out to them in love, and maybe even drive them to get a shot.
Aseh tov. Do good. We should continue to seek ways to improve ourselves, our lives, and our world, and while of course there are many such ways of doing this, I personally recommend considering the many traditional ways of Jewish living: setting aside Shabbat as a holy day of rest and oneg, eating mindfully, engaging with words of Torah, expressing our gratitude to the Qadosh Barukh Hu, and of course raising the bar in terms of our tzedaqah and hesed, our charity and acts of lovingkindness.
It is through these things that we can lean into the oneg, the enjoyment, and keep away the nega, even as they bump up against one another.
Leading up to Pesaḥ / Passover, I always try to remind anybody who will listen that the most important part of the seder experience is not the meal, but the discussion surrounding the meal. I know – eating is more fun than talking about tradition and history and customs and ideas and holiday themes and slavery and freedom. But I want to try to give you a discussion topic today that I think you will really WANT to have with your family, whether they are there in person or meeting via Zoom or however you are gathering.
It is this: Lashanah haba-ah biyrushalayim. The last three words in the haggadah: Next year in Jerusalem. That should be our mantra this year.
Because this year, this Pesaḥ, we can see Jerusalem from a distance.
What do I mean by that? First, let’s consider the role of Jerusalem in Jewish life.
In the year 70 CE, the Romans destroyed the Second Beit haMiqdash / Temple in Jerusalem. The Beit haMiqdash was the center of Jewish life up until that time – it was where the kohanim (Jewish priests) sacrificed animals to God, according to the instructions found in the Torah, some of which were described in Parashat Tzav, which we read from this morning. Following this destruction, the Beit haMiqdash has never been rebuilt.
(As you have heard me argue before, the Romans actually did the Jews a kind of favor; Maimonides makes the case, more than a millennium later, that it was ultimately God’s intent to bring us to tefillah / prayer as our primary form of worship in lieu of sacrificing animals. Not everybody agrees with Maimonides, but that is a subject for another day.)
About 65 years after the Roman destruction, following the Bar Kokhba rebellion of 132-135 CE, the Roman authorities banned Jews from living in Jerusalem and its outskirts.
(Another aside: when you read tonight about the five rabbis – R. Eliezer, R. Yehoshua R. El’azar ben Azariah, R. Aqiva, and R. Tarfon – who gathered at Benei Beraq to discuss the Exodus all night long, that may be a description of an all-night Bar Kokhba rebellion planning session. When one of their students pops in to say, Rabbeinu, higi’a zeman qeri’at Shema shel shaḥarit / “Our teachers, the time has come to recite the morning Shema,” that may have been the sentry’s code for, “Hide the maps! The Romans are coming!”)
From the early 2nd century forward, the entirety of the rabbinic enterprise was dedicated not only to creating a religious system to replace the kohanic / sacrificial system, but also to remember and highlight the grandeur of the Beit haMiqdash, and the “good ol’ days” of its existence, even as they replaced its centralized, hierarchical system with the democratic, decentralized system of Rabbinic Judaism that we have today.
In doing so, the rabbis elevated Jerusalem, also known as Tziyyon / Zion, as the focal point of our yearning. We find this throughout rabbinic literature, manifest in the messianic desire of rebuilding Jerusalem and the Beit haMiqdash of course, but also in passages like this from the Talmud, Massekhet Qiddushin 49b:
עשרה קבים חכמה ירדו לעולם תשעה נטלה ארץ ישראל ואחד כל העולם כולו עשרה קבים יופי ירדו לעולם תשעה נטלה ירושלים ואחד כל העולם כולו …
Ten kavim of wisdom descended to the world; Eretz Yisrael took nine of them and all the rest of the world took one. Ten kavim of beauty descended to the world; Jerusalem took nine and all the rest of the world in its entirety took one.
90% of the world’s beauty is in Jerusalem, and 90% of the world’s wisdom is in Israel. This yearning continues until this very day; you can find it on many pages of the siddur, including multiple berakhot in the weekday Amidah, which we recite three times per day, while facing, and bowing in the direction of Jerusalem.
The medieval Spanish poet, Yehudah haLevi, who lived in the 11th/12th century, captures this ancient desire so beautifully in his primal poem, Libi vemizrah:
My heart is in the East, and I in the uttermost West– How can I find savor in food? How shall it be sweet to me? How shall I render my vows and my bonds, while yet Zion lieth beneath the fetter of Edom, and I in Arab chains? A light thing would it seem to me to leave all the good things of Spain — Seeing how precious in mine eyes to behold the dust of the desolate sanctuary.
In some sense, Yehudah haLevi is yearning not for the rebuilt Beit haMiqdash, but rather the idea of returning to this “precious” jewel of a ruined city. Were it not for the desire to see Jerusalem, his exile in Spain would be impossible to bear.
And furthermore, the Talmud tells us that there are really two Jerusalems, and our yearning is arguably greater for the heavenly Jerusalem, Yerushalayim shel Ma’alah (BT Ta’anit 5a):
Rabbi Yitzḥak said to Rav Naḥman that Rabbi Yoḥanan said … The Holy One, Blessed be He, said: I shall not enter Jerusalem above, in heaven, until I enter Jerusalem on earth down below at the time of the redemption, when it will be sacred in your midst.
Rabbi Yoḥanan’s suggestion is that the heavenly Jerusalem is the greater prize; that will not be rebuilt until the Earthly Jerusalem, Yerushalayim shel Matah, is rebuilt.
So why am I telling you all of this today? What does it mean for us at this particular moment?
When we say, Lashanah Haba-ah Biyrushalayim tonight and tomorrow night, we should lean into our own immediate yearning. We have been in exile for more than a year; we have been yearning for the East, our hearts at the end of the West, since Adar of 5780.
Yes, I know that is not a long time, compared to the nearly two millennia that our ancestors waited for the opportunity to rebuild Yerushalayim shel Matah / Earthly Jerusalem.
Yes, I know that even with all the grief that the virus has caused – the sickness, the death, the anxiety, and all the various socio-economic consequences – these things are still small compared to the way our people have suffered throughout the centuries of displacement.
And yes, I know that it does not really help to look at one’s predicament and say, “Oh, but it could be so much worse.”
Nonetheless, the point at which enough of us will have been vaccinated such that we can begin to gather safely again, to re-open businesses, to see our families and friends, will actually feel to many of us like a major redemption. People have told me that they have cried when receiving their shots; many, I know, are saying a berakhah. I certainly recited sheheheyyanu when I got my first dose two weeks ago. This is my Jerusalem right now.
So as we all gather this evening, here are a few discussion questions you can ask:
Why do we say, “Lashanah haba-ah biyrushalayim,” if most of us are not actually planning to move to Israel in the next year?
What might “Yerusahalayim” represent this year?
What might we do to make sure we get there more quickly?
You might guide the discussion by seasoning it with the difference between the Earthly and Heavenly Jerusalems, and while we can all visit and/or move to the Earthly Jerusalem, the Heavenly one is more of an idea that encompasses our yearning, our individual goals of freedom at this moment.
And, by the way, you do not have to wait until the end of the seder to discuss this, because right up front in the “Maggid” section, in which we tell the story, when we say, “Ha laḥma anya,” this is the bread of poverty that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt, it also says, a little further into that Aramaic passage:
This is the bread of poverty that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are in need come and partake of the Pesaḥ sacrifice. Now we are here, next year we will be in the land of Israel. This year we are slaves, next year we will be free people.
Let me rephrase that for you:
Now we are living apart; in the coming year, with the help of the Qadosh Barukh Hu, we will be free once again to greet each other, to hug each other, to dine together, to worship together, to sing and dance together. That is freedom; that is a vision of Yerushalayim shel Ma’alah for which I am yearning right now.
(Just in case you don’t get to the link at the end, here it is up front: mercaz2020.org. Vote! If you need to know why you absolutely should, read on.)
In 2014, I was in Israel on a trip with about 35 teens from my synagogue on Long Island. At one point, during the week, we were staying at the hotel at a secular kibbutz north of Tel Aviv. Since this was a synagogue-sponsored trip, we were in the habit of holding daily tefillot (religious services) as a group every morning. So we were leaving this hotel that morning, and the plan was, before loading our stuff onto the bus, that we would use the synagogue on the hotel grounds to recite shaharit (the morning service). We approached the front desk to ask if we could use the synagogue. Sizing up our group, the clerk, presumably a secular member of this kibbutz, told us that we were not in fact allowed to use the synagogue.
When asked why, we were told that the mashgiah, the kashrut supervisor for the hotel restaurant, had instructed the hotel that if non-Orthodox groups were allowed to use the synagogue, the local rabbinic authorities would invalidate their kosher certification.
We departed, and davened beside the bus in a parking lot at our next destination.
So this secular kibbutz, making a sensible business decision from their perspective (i.e. not to lose out on all the kosher-keeping groups who stay there), denied a Jewish kosher-keeping group the opportunity to practice Judaism on their property. And all of this took place in the Jewish state.
Rabbi Jeremy related to me that he found himself in a similar situation around the same time: he was in rabbinical school, and, while traveling in the north of Israel with a group of Conservative rabbinical students, they stayed at a different hotel, which denied this group the use of their sefer Torah (Torah scroll) because they were not Orthodox. Never mind that they would certainly treat the Torah respectfully. Never mind that they would read it the same way that Orthodox Jews do. Never mind that they were rabbinical students. They were denied merely because they prayed in a group of men and women mixed together.
All of this in the Jewish state.
Every now and then we get all upset about different manifestations of this problem, of the delegitimization of non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel. Remember a few years back, when the Netanyahu government reneged on its plan to complete the construction of an egalitarian prayer space at the southern end of the Kotel (the Western Wall), away from the “traditional” Kotel plaza? Remember how upset non-Orthodox leaders were in this country? Remember that? And then what happened?
Frankly, nothing. Because American Jews, as much as they claim to care about Israel, might be very concerned about religious freedom in Israel when they are there, but it is all too easy not to worry or even think about it when we are back at home.
You see, in Israel, weddings between two Jews must be performed by Orthodox rabbis approved by the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. If you want to have me do a destination wedding in the Bahamas, I’m all in. If you want me to do it in Israel, I will apologize and urge you to get married here instead, because I do not want to get arrested. (Although as a proud Zionist, I must say that being in prison in Israel might make for an interesting experience, a new way to experience the Holy Land, and potentially good sermon material.)
All of this is due to the fact that while the State of Israel is a healthy democracy, there is no separation of State and synagogue there, and political machinations have enfranchised an Orthodox, and increasingly ultra-Orthodox monopoly on Jewish life. All official Jewish ritual events that affect personal status – weddings, divorces, conversions, funerals, etc. – are under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate of the State of Israel, which is of course Orthodox. Same for kashrut supervision for restaurants, and hence the hotel problems I mentioned earlier. Also for the Kotel plaza, which functions more or less like an Orthodox synagogue, with a tall mehitzah (traditional synagogue separation barrier between men and women, which we do not have at egalitarian congregations such as Beth Shalom) and limited access for women in general. A service like the ones we hold here at Beth Shalom is prohibited not only by the Western Wall, but in the whole public plaza surrounding it as well. Women are prohibited from reading Torah there, and even from wearing a tallit (prayer shawl).
Change on this front is difficult for the Israeli government because of the nature of the coalition system. As with the canceled plans for the egalitarian Kotel plaza, Netanyahu backed out of the plan because his Likud party required the support of the Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox,” although that is not really an accurate description of who they are) parties, who are a part of his coalition. And the number of practicing non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, though growing, is quite small; roughly 40% of the Israeli public identifies as Orthodox, while perhaps 8% identify with the Reform or Conservative movements. While many Likud voters and politicians do not care so deeply about what goes on at the Kotel, the Haredi parties feel very strongly that the Israeli government should not kowtow to non-Orthodox Jews, particularly non-Israeli, non-Orthodox Jews (which, BTW, describes 85% of Jews in America), on the freedom to practice Judaism the way we do.
Pluralism, that is, acknowledging that there are different paths through Jewish life and tolerating each other’s presence, is not a thing in Israel. According to the Jewish State, which long ago turned over all religious affairs to the Rabbinate, there is only one form of legitimate Judaism. Even for secular Israelis, usually the shul that they proudly do not attend is Orthodox.
Does this seem wrong to you? It should.
One of the wonderful things about this nation, and one reason why religion flourishes here, is because the government generally stays out of it. That principle is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Those sixteen words have been, shall we say, a Godsend to not just the Jews, but to all religious groups.
Israel has no such principle. And it is very easy for Israeli politicians to ignore the religious practices of American Jews, because, let’s face it: we do not live there. If we are inconvenienced as tourists, well, so be it. We’ll get over it when we take off from Ben Gurion Airport on the way home.
But don’t you think that the Jewish State, which likes to see itself as the center of the Jewish world, should at least allow non-Orthodox Jews to worship according to their custom? Don’t you think that I should be able to perform a wedding in the State of Israel? Don’t you think that people who convert to Judaism under my supervision should be accepted fully as Jews in Israel? Of course you do.
And so I have some good news: you have a voice in Israel. And that voice is the World Zionist Congress.
What is the World Zionist Congress, you may ask? It is an assemblage of supporters of Theodor Herzl’s Zionist vision of a Jewish state, from all over the world, that convenes roughly every five years, going back to the First Zionist Congress, organized by Herzl himself in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland. This is the 38th such assemblage, and it will take place in Jerusalem in October, and we who care about religious pluralism need to show our support by voting.
At stake in this election are 152 seats representing American Jews, and it is crucial that a large contingent of those seats speak loudly on behalf of protecting religious freedom in Israel.
(I have some insider information: as of early this past week, only 43 people in the 15217 Zip code had voted for Mercaz. There are at least 1,000 people who are members of this congregation; you do the math.)
Why should you vote for Mercaz? Because critical decisions, influential positions, reputational influence, and funding for the Masorti/Conservative movement are all at stake. The World Zionist Congress “makes decisions and sets policies regarding key institutions that support global Jewish life and which allocate nearly $1 billion annually to support Israel and World Jewry.”
If we just throw up our hands and say, “Oh, that’s so far away, and why should I bother?” then the other folks who are voting, those who seek to delegitimize me, you and our friends and family who are non-Orthodox Jews and Jewish practice in Israel, their voices will grow louder, and that funding and influence will go their way.
After all of the events I have described above, don’t you think it’s time that our voice is heard? That we ensure that the State of Israel features a Jewish environment that is open and free and pluralistic, one in which your Jewish practice is recognized as Jewish?
You have a voice – use it! Go to www.Mercaz2020.org to register, vote, check out the slate of delegates and the Mercaz platform. Yes, it will cost you $7.50 and a few minutes of your time, but this is a small price to pay to support a pluralist Jewish state. We also have paper ballots in the lobby here at Beth Shalom. And if you let me know that you have voted for Mercaz, come by my office and I’ll give you a sticker!
Many of you know that I travel to Israel frequently – I have a relationship with Israel that stretches back to the summer of 1987, when I spent eight weeks there at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. Since then, I have returned so many times that I have lost count – somewhere between 30 and 40 trips, and of course I lived there for a year and a half during the central portion of my journey from engineering to the rabbinate.
On this trip, I must say that I did something which I consider profoundly Zionist: I went skiing.
I have actually been thinking about doing this for years. Mt. Hermon, which hosts the only alpine environment in the Middle East, is located at the very top of the Golan Heights, and while most of the mountain is divided between Syria and Lebanon, a sliver is contained within the Israeli section of the Golan Heights. Israel conquered the Golan Heights during the Six-Day War in 1967, and officially annexed the area in 1981, and so far only the United States recognizes Israel’s sovereignty there.
Not long after the Six-Day War, Israeli entrepreneurs beheld the huge amounts of snow that are present for a few weeks every winter, and saw an opportunity. On the day that my son and I were there, there were hundreds of people skiing, and many hundreds more who were sledding, riding the alpine slide, playing in the snow, and taking the gondola to the foggy summit. (The skiing, BTW, was awesome!)
Now as with anything in Israel, there are political ramifications to everything. The businesses on and surrounding Mt. Hermon provides jobs for the Druze residents of the city of Majdal Shams, whose officials publicly state their loyalty to Syria, although it is clear that many of them would much rather be in Israel than in Syria. Should there someday be a peace agreement with Syria, there is a significant chance that the Golan Heights, and the ski area and the Golan Heights Druze with it, will return to Syria, so at least officially they profess their loyalty to the Syrian government.
Meanwhile, Israelis flock to enjoy a little taste of the Alps in their backyard. At the end of a day of skiing, we were stuck in a VERY Zionist traffic jam as everybody headed down the mountain on the windy road toward Majdal Shams.
I also did something that was not quite as Zionist, in the sense that it was pro-Diaspora, and that was to be the rabbi on the second Pittsburgh cohort of Honeymoon Israel.
You might make the case that HMI is not particularly Zionist, because Israel is really only a backdrop, a set on which to give 20 young couples from Pittsburgh, all within five years of marriage and/or partnership, the opportunity to create a micro-community that will ideally thrive back in their hometown. Every HMI trip is city-based, and each busload of 20 couples from the same city is accompanied by an engagement professional from the local Federation (in our case, Karen Podorefsky from the Young Adult Division), an Israeli tour guide, and a rabbi. The goal, different from Birthright, for example, is not to connect American Jews with Israel, but to use Israel as a pretext to discuss issues surrounding Jewish peoplehood.
It is actually a brilliant idea, one that emerged primarily from the Pew Research Center’s study on American Jews published in 2013, to which you may have heard me refer from time to time. One of the most important pieces of info which emerged from this study is that there is a growing group of Jews who consider themselves proudly Jewish, but are utterly disconnected from Judaism as a religion. That may not bode well for synagogues, but the creators of HMI see this as an opportunity: how to help this segment of self-identified Jews, and in some cases their non-Jewish partners create community? Furthermore, given the fragmented nature of today’s Jewish world, how do we continue to connect Jews to each other, whether through traditional Jewish activities or otherwise?
This aligns very much with what we are trying to do at Beth Shalom: the very point of Derekh is to provide portals, inviting doorways into Jewish life and community. A synagogue is first and foremost a beit keneset, a Jewish place of gathering, even over and above its role as a beit tefillah and a beit midrash (place of prayer and learning). As such, we need to be a center of Jewish life that invites everybody in, and this has been a focus of my rabbinate since I arrived here four-and-a-half years ago. And that is why, when the opportunity came up to be the rabbi on this trip, I jumped at the chance.
So we spent eight-and-a-half days on the ground in Israel, hitting some tourist highlights, of course, but also allowing plenty of free time for couples to enjoy themselves in cosmopolitan Israel (Since this trip is billed as a honeymoon, one goal is not to subject the participants to a jam-packed schedule of lectures and archaeological sites). There was also time built into the trip for discussions about engaging with Jewish life and connection with the rabbi: services on the two Friday evenings, havdalah, and a few discussions and spontaneous Q&A sessions and group processing.
One of the highlights of the trip was a lecture on Jewish peoplehood by Avraham Infeld, the renowned Jewish educator and former president of Hillel International. Mr. Infeld spoke, or, rather, bellowed, about Jewish peoplehood as seen through the lens of what he refers to as a “Five-Legged Table.” The “legs” of the table are as follows:
Memory: The idea that what connects us to each other as Jews is a shared story. Not history, per se, although that is certainly part of the story. But it is our collective memory of being enslaved in Egypt, for example, that drives us not only to the seder table on Pesah, but also to remember our duty to work toward a world in which nobody is enslaved or oppressed. (You might consider how we rose this morning to chant responsively as we read from the Torah Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, as a prime example of living Jewish memory. We continue to express gratitude for our redemption from Egypt every single day of the year by reciting Shirat HaYam as a part of every day’s morning service.)
Family: We are united by the sense of the Jewish people as being one big, inclusive family. And that means not only people who have roots in the Eastern European shtetl, but also those whose grandparents were traders in the souq of Baghdad, those who were flown from Ethiopia to Israel in Operation Solomon in 1991, and even those who were not born Jewish, but, as Infeld put it, had the hutzpah to fall in love with a Jewish person. “You’re a member of my family,” said Avraham Infeld. “and you’re stuck with me.”
Mt. Sinai: We were together at Mt. Sinai, where we received the Torah as a people from God. Whether you follow the mitzvot / holy opportunities of the Torah to the tiniest detail or you reject them, whether you understand God in traditional terms or reject the idea entirely, the Mt. Sinai moment is still ours, the nexus of Jewish memory, and an essential piece of what it means to be Jewish.
Israel: When we recited the Shaharit / the morning service earlier, we recited “Mashiv haruah umorid hagashem” – God makes the wind blow and the rain fall. We prayed for rain, but not here: Jews all over the world pray for rain in the Land of Israel. (On that front, I have good news: while we were there, it rained almost every day!) Our prayer, our rituals, our texts, and our memory continue to connect us back to that land. Meanwhile, the contemporary State of Israel is an undeniably essential feature of today’s Jewish landscape. While not perfect by anybody’s standard, Israel is here to stay and wherever you are in the Jewish world, you cannot discount the outsize role that Israel, the land and the state, plays in world Jewry.
Hebrew: Our people has a language, and that language is Hebrew. Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Pittsburghese and so forth are all Jewish languages, but all of them draw on the one language that we all share, the language of the Torah. There is a reason that Eliezer Ben-Yehudah revived Hebrew to make it the spoken language of Israel, and that is that it unites us all as Jews.
These are the things that we share, the essential building blocks of Jewish peoplehood. Infeld believes that if you relate to at least three of them, you feel connected to the Jewish people; as you may know, a table with three legs can stand, but one with two cannot.
Honeymoon Israel’s goal is to connect its participants with at least a few of these legs, and to build on the stability of that table to welcome more Jews into, and perhaps indeed back into the Jewish community. Am Yisrael hai: the people of Israel lives. And I am certain that it is doing that; at this point over 2000 couples have participated in the program; HMI’s statistics report that 85% of participants feel a “new sense of belonging to the Jewish community and connection to Israel” following the trip.
So you might be wondering now, “OK, Rabbi, so this all sounds great, except for one thing: you’re a rabbi, and your job is to teach Judaism according to the traditional view of Judaism as a religion, right?”
Well, yes and no. Religion and peoplehood cannot easily be separated. And I am going to speak about that next week, when we act on the memory of the Sinai moment in Parashat Yitro. So I am concluding today with a sort of cliffhanger: Come back next week to find out why now is the time to reach out to the least connected Jews, and how we should do that.