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Sermons

On Boycotts, Binary Thinking, and Genocide – Vaetḥannan 5781

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):

וְזֹ֣את הַמִּצְוָ֗ה הַֽחֻקִּים֙ וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֛ה ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶ֖ם לְלַמֵּ֣ד אֶתְכֶ֑ם לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת בָּאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַתֶּ֛ם עֹבְרִ֥ים שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ׃ 

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.

Ezrat Yisrael, the egalitarian prayer space by the Western Wall

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.

צ’רי גרסיה

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.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, morning of Shabbat Naḥamu, 7/24/2021.)

* 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.

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Sermons

Sanity, Not Cynicism – Bemidbar 5781

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

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

Nothing has changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray for sanity over cynicism.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

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

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Festivals Sermons

Making Peace Between People: An Essential Jewish Goal – Shemini Atzeret 5781

A few weeks back, New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote a compelling piece titled, Go Live in Another Decade. I Recommend It, about comparing our current moment to the past. In trying to understand how we got here, to this moment of deep division, of people marching in the streets for racial justice and militia groups brandishing rifles and plotting the kidnapping of a governor, of casting doubt on the reliability of our election process and the politicization of public health, Mr. Manjoo chronicles his deep dive into the chaos of the 1960s. He discovered the wealth of video available on YouTube of news coverage and pop culture from the second half of the 20th century, and zooms in on one speech given by President Lyndon Johnson, his first address of Congress five days after the assassination of JFK and his having been sworn in as president aboard Air Force One in Dallas.

If you listen to the speech, you can feel the heaviness in the room as the Congress applauds the new president, who concedes his reluctance at having to take on the duties of the highest office in the land at such a soul-crushing moment. Johnson speaks of unity in the task of righting wrongs, in improving the lot of people around the world and at home, at facing the challenges of racism, of “poverty, misery, disease, and ignorance.” He reinforces the idea that the “strong can be just in the use of strength, and the just can be strong in the defense of justice.” 

And, pointing to the divisiveness of that decade, President Johnson says the following:

The time has come for Americans of all races and creeds and political beliefs to understand and to respect one another. So let us put an end to the teaching and the preaching of hate and evil and violence. Let us turn away from the fanatics of the far left and the far right, from the apostles of bitterness and bigotry, from those defied of law and those who pour venom into our nation’s bloodstream.

I profoundly hope that the tragedy and the torment of these terrible days will bind us together in new fellowship, making us one people in our hour of sorrow.

It brought tears to my eyes.

A question that we must ask ourselves at this moment, as Jewish Americans, is, “What is our role in seeking the unity that we need right now?” 

As you might expect, I find those answers in the framework of Jewish tradition, starting with a quote from the Talmud (BT Kiddushin 39b):

אלו דברים שאדם אוכל פירותיהן בעולם הזה והקרן קיימת לו לעולם הבא אלו הן כבוד אב ואם וגמילות חסדים והכנסת אורחים והבאת שלום בין אדם לחבירו ותלמוד תורה כנגד כולם

These are the matters that a person engages in and enjoys their benefits in this world, and the principal reward remains for the World-to-Come, and they are: Honoring one’s father and mother, acts of loving-kindness, hospitality toward guests, and bringing peace between one person and another; and Torah study is equal to all of them.

Yes, you have heard me say that last one many times as a foundational statement of Jewish life, that Torah study is equal to the weight of all other mitzvot combined.

But go back one, to “hava-at shalom bein adam lehavero.” Making peace between one person and another. Quite high up on this list of essential mitzvot is the obligation to repair relationships, to bring people together, to heal interpersonal wounds. Ladies and gentlemen, we are all failing at this task. 

In 1963, President Johnson was speaking to a nation doubled over in pain, not only from the assassination of JFK, but also from protests over racial injustice, Cold War fears of communism spreading abroad and possibly infiltrating at home, American military involvement in distant lands, and of course political division.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is OK to disagree. It is not OK to denigrate people on the other side. It is worth remembering that, while there are certainly bad actors in this world, there are always going to be honest people, good, well-intentioned people, people of faith, with whom you will disagree vehemently. And their opinion, no matter how offensive or ridiculous or oppositional to everything that you believe, if it is based on reasonable, factual assumptions and honest assessment of the situation, is just as valid as yours.

Political division is creating personal rifts between people. I know of people in the same family who cannot even speak to each other and friendships that have been broken as a result.

And, lest you think that electing one person over another in a few weeks will change that, please allow me to burst your bubble. We are going to have to work very hard if we are going to find our way out of this morass. It is not as simple as casting a ballot, or posting a meme on Facebook, or putting a sign in your front yard.

I would rather refocus our energies on fulfilling the spirit of Exodus 23:5:

כִּֽי־תִרְאֶ֞ה חֲמ֣וֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ֗ רֹבֵץ֙ תַּ֣חַת מַשָּׂא֔וֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ֖ מֵעֲזֹ֣ב ל֑וֹ עָזֹ֥ב תַּעֲזֹ֖ב עִמּֽוֹ׃ 

If you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden, and you might be inclined not to help him, you must make every effort to help him.

Should you help your enemy if he votes for a different party than you? Of course. But what if there is a Confederate flag flying in his front yard? What if he was recently released from prison after serving time for a murder or rape conviction? What if he is the head of the local chapter of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement against Israel?

Not so easy, right?

I would love to hear a leader stand up in front of the American people and speak about love, about loving your neighbor, about working together, even when we disagree, to solve the big challenges we know we all face: the challenges of education, of health care, of unemployment, of mass incarceration, of the ongoing scourge of mass shootings, of the abuse of opioids, of the challenges posed by a warming climate.

I would be happy to see our leaders choosing country over party, understanding that it’s not all about winning, and that they are elected not to throw mud at the other guy, but rather to reach out across the aisle in partnership.

I would be overjoyed to see our journalists and media outlets help us all to understand that the truth cannot be reduced to a soundbite or a tweet, that patience and intellectual engagement are necessary to help find the solutions to the challenges we face.

Tomorrow, hevreh, is Simhat Torah, the day on which we complete the cycle of reading the Torah and go back to the beginning again. And in rejoicing with the Torah (which we will of course be doing, albeit a little subdued from our ordinary celebration; we will just have to remember to dance and sing twice as hard and twice as loud in 5782), we remember that Torah is long form. 

Yes, if you unroll a sefer Torah, you’ll see that it does not even reach half the circumference of the Beth Shalom Ballroom. But all the “Torah” in the more general sense, all of the Torah that flows from it, fills not a room or a building, but our entire lives. It is a lifetime’s worth of learning, of reflecting, of growth and change and reading again and revisiting and re-interpreting. Learning that Torah never ends, just as our own individual pursuits of self-discovery and self-improvement never end.

Torah is long form. We cannot ignore or erase the verses we do not like, but we must contend with them on the page. 

And the same is true for being a good citizen, for making a functioning democracy, for building a just society, as our tradition commands us; we work together, even with those with whom we disagree, to improve our world, to solve the big challenges. Total ideological purity is not a reasonable goal.

There is another tradition that we will perform tomorrow, one that may be familiar to some of you. The Hatzi Kaddish before Musaf on Simhat Torah is often sung to a series of holiday melodies from throughout the Jewish year – tunes from Hanukkah and Purim, the Three Festivals, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and even Tish’ah BeAv. It is referred to as the “Yahres Kaddish,” the Kaddish of the whole year. 

It is a musically frivolous moment, coming at the end of a raucous service at the end of a long holiday season. But there is also a reflective quality to it – a reminder that this is the end of the holiday season, as we enter Marheshvan, the bitter month of Heshvan in which there are no joyous days, 

and we look back to the year that has passed, 

and we look forward to the one that we have just begun, 

and we consider our joy and our grief and our pleading to be sealed in the Book of Life and our remembrance of those who have passed, 

and we sense the cool wind of fall and smell the fallen leaves, 

and we remember that we are frail, that we are older, that we have suffered loss even as we move from strength to strength.

And we remember that one of our fundamental duties, as we look to the next holiday and begin the cycle anew, drawing on our memories and what we have learned and our apprehension of what is to come, and the inexorable march of time, is the obligation to make peace between people. That is an essential role that we the Jews aspire to fulfill on this Earth. 

President Johnson’s words were prophetic. As we mourn the 213,000+ fellow citizens who have died needlessly, and we remember all those for whom we grieve today during the Yizkor service, I too hope “that the tragedy and the torment of these terrible days will bind us together in new fellowship, making us one people in our hour of sorrow.” 

Amen.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, morning of Shemini Atzeret 5781, 10/10/2020.)

Categories
Sermons

There is Only One Side – Naso 5780

:’לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ אֲנִ֖י ה

Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor; I am God. (Vayiqra/Leviticus 19:16)

(The “I am God” bit is often left off; but it is an essential part of the verse. Understanding that we are all in holy relationship, that God dwells in the space between each of us and connects us, is needed now more than ever.)

***

On October 28th, 2018, there was a hastily-prepared memorial service at Soldiers’ and Sailors Memorial Hall for the victims of the previous day’s murders at the Tree of Life building. I remember the silence, the shock and grief, the over-capacity crowd, the sea of umbrellas outside of people who could not get into the hall. 

I remember that the clergy who were invited to join the presenters on the stage were from across the community: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, white, black, and everything else.

Pittsburgh, October 28, 2018

I remember that we stood together, unable to fathom the depth of what had happened, unable to imagine the sheer brutality and hatred required to carry out such an unspeakable act.

I did not watch the video of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. I could not bring myself to do so. The print details were enough: 8 minutes and 46 seconds. “I can’t breathe.” “Mama!”

Ladies and gentlemen, we are in pain as a society. The coronavirus, the 108,000 dead; the economic fallout, 13% unemployment; and now a slew of events on the national stage that remind us all of the deep ugliness that lurks within the American psyche. The hatred, the systemic racism, the political division, the festering anger toward the judicial system and law enforcement, the resentment that different groups of people feel toward one another.

I attended a peaceful protest of clergy on Monday. One of the African-American preachers riffed on Psalm 94, which we recite in our weekday services every Wednesday.  

עַד־מָתַ֖י רְשָׁעִ֥ים ה’ עַד־מָ֝תַ֗י רְשָׁעִ֥ים יַעֲלֹֽזוּ׃

How long shall the wicked, O Lord, how long shall the wicked exult? (Tehillim / Psalm 94:3)

How long? He cried. How long?!

Pittsburgh, June 1, 2020

How long indeed. 

As you know, we had an 8:30 curfew for three nights last week. I confess that I broke the curfew on each of those nights; on Saturday night because I did not know that there was a curfew (I don’t use computers or listen to the radio or turn on TV on Shabbat or Yom Tov). On Sunday and Monday evenings because I was taking an evening stroll in Frick Park after dinner, and did not quite make it home by 8:30. 

On the latter two nights, I suppose that I broke that curfew because I knew I could. I knew that if a police officer were to stop me, he or she would not interrogate me or knock me to the ground or handcuff me or arrest me and take me down to the station. And if I happened to say the wrong thing or not look sufficiently submissive, she or he would probably be forgiving, tell me to just go home, you’re not supposed to be outside right now.

And that is exactly the point.

I will not have to have “the talk” with my sons, the talk that all black parents must have with their sons. Although I am 6’4” and arguably intimidating if you were to pass me alone at night, I will probably not have to worry that I will be perceived as a threat, and I know that people do not immediately assume that I am up to no good when they see me in public. I can go jogging or bird-watching without fear of anything going wrong.

And that’s because I look white. And I wear a kippah on my head.

But my tradition teaches me to be sympathetic to others; to listen to their needs; to help them when we can.

וְגֵ֥ר לֹא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
(Shemot / Exodus 22:20)

We remember where we came from. We remember that we were slaves, so that we understand the oppressed, the enslaved, the disenfranchised. And we remember that we have to stand up for them, whether they are Jewish or not.

I was dismayed to read an opinion piece in the Forward this week, written by some rabbinic colleagues, titled, Every Jew Must Decide Which Side They Are On.

No! Hevreh, there is only one side: the side of humanity. The side in which we build a better society, one in which police officers do not kill unarmed people, and in which peaceable assembly is not accompanied by violence, theft, and vandalism. The side in which there is no need for city curfews. The side in which visibly Jewish people can walk in the street without fear of being attacked. The side in which law enforcement, and indeed the US military, do not use tear gas on American citizens who are lawfully exercising their Constitutional rights. The side in which people are not divided between “sides.”

I am afraid right now that, given the division between people, our society will be torn apart by well-meaning people who point angry fingers at others. Let us not be manipulated into thinking that there is an “us” and a “them.”

There is only one side, and I am on that one. And so is the Torah.

Ladies and gentlemen, the only way we are going to move forward as a society in a way that is safe and respectful and loving is by understanding that we are in this together. 

:’וְאָֽהַבְתָּ֥ לְרֵעֲךָ֖ כָּמ֑וֹךָ אֲנִ֖י ה

Love your neighbor as yourself.
(Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:18)
[ זה כלל גדול בתורה, this is a great principle in the Torah, adds Rabbi Aqiva.]

Hevreh, there is a lot of blame to go around for how we got here. But blame is also a game that involves picking sides, drawing lines. Let’s face it folks: we are all a little guilty of bringing us to this point. Parashat Naso (Bemidbar / Numbers 5:7) teaches us that when we seek atonement, we must confess our sins, and here are a few we have all done:

We are guilty of not helping raise up our enemy’s donkey, after it fell from a too-heavy burden. (Think metaphorically, folks.) (Shemot / Exodus 23:5)

We are guilty of repeating slander of one another via social media, like the tzara’at skin disease that spreads so easily, and cannot be taken back. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 13:1ff)

We are guilty of not having a system of justice that is applied equally to the rich and the poor. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:15)

We are guilty of not following the Torah’s imperative of “Tzedeq, tzedeq tirdof” – צדק, צדק תרדוף. Justice! you shall pursue justice. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 16:20)

We are guilty of standing idly by the blood of our fellow human beings. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:16)

But here is the upshot: we are all in this together, and we can change.

What we need now is not anger. Not division. Rather, what we need right now is to listen to one another, to work together, and pull ourselves up out of the mess we have made. 

Our neighbors showed up for us, ladies and gentlemen. And we must show up for them.

And not just that. Get to know people outside your familiar range of friends. It is only through being in relationship with others unlike you that we learn to counteract our own natural biases. We, the Jews, have spent so many centuries in ghettoes and in forced exile and subject to pogroms and genocide that we are reflexively suspect of others unlike us. But now is the time for us to listen to the stories of all of our neighbors, and act through love toward one another. That is the Torah’s great principle.

Parashat Naso includes a piece of text that is well-known in Jewish life, the so-called Birkat Kohanim, which the Torah identifies as the blessing that the kohanim, the priestly class shall bless all the rest of us:

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה’ וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃ 

May God bless you and protect you!

יָאֵ֨ר ה’ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃

May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you!

יִשָּׂ֨א ה’ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃

May God’s face lift up to you and grant you peace!
(Bemidbar / Numbers 6:24-26)

It is up to us to seek God’s face, to look for and understand the divinity in each and every person. It is up to us to find ways to reach out, to learn, to listen, to create spaces in our lives beyond our comfort zones to connect with others. We must all stand on the same side at this time to be blessed and protected. We must seek to change ourselves, to change our behavior, to rid ourselves of the anger and the fear and the hate, to create that single side, the right side of justice and peace and love. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 6/6/2020.)

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Sermons

The Nexus of Politics and Judaism – Shabbat Nahamu 5779

I have recently received a few comments that my sermons have been “too political.” So I just wanted to clarify something as a kind of prologue: I try to speak to contemporary issues, issues that are in the air all around us. I cannot speak about abstractions, about things that we are not necessarily thinking about. And the clergy-person that does not address what’s on people’s minds is irrelevant. I am trying my best not to be irrelevant. My job is to teach how our texts guide us in our daily interactions with the world, with both the mundane and the existential.

At the same time, my goal is not to inflame. I do not label any public figures with unfair or inaccurate descriptors. I do not use hyperbolic or inflammatory language. I do try to avoid calling out specific people, where possible, or God forbid, mentioning political parties. It is not my goal to get everybody heated up and arguing at kiddush. On the contrary, I hope to elevate the dialogue by emphasizing what Jewish tradition teaches about the issues in play.

As you know, I think it is essential for us to remember that learning the words and concepts of the Jewish bookshelf improves our lives and our society, and I can tell you this: if the principles of compassion, of derekh eretz / respect, of justice, of acknowledging the kedushah / holiness in each of us and in our relationships with each other were kept in front of us at all times, the world would be a much better place, and perhaps far less polarized.

***

On this day, Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat of comfort, my hope is to bring us some comfort in Jewish text. The first Shabbat after Tish’ah BeAv, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, is so titled because it is the opening salvo of the First Haftarah of Consolation which we read this morning, from the prophet Isaiah. As we count off the seven weeks from Tish’ah BeAv until Rosh Hashanah, we should feel ourselves recovering from the desolation of Tish’ah BeAv, moving from mourning the tragedies of our history to seeing ourselves as elevated in the glory of God’s sovereignty.

Relief from the Arch of Titus in Rome, depicting Roman soldiers carrying away the implements of the Second Temple following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE

And the challenge facing us at this time is, how do we find comfort when the nation is still reeling from the needless deaths of 31 people two weekends ago? When we in Pittsburgh are still in mourning for the 11 members of our community who were so brutally taken from us nearly 10 months ago?

How do we find comfort when the issues surrounding who is allowed to come into this country, and who is allowed to stay, continue to roil our national conversation?

How can we find comfort when our government is proposing to favor immigrants who are not poor? I’ll tell you this, folks: if such a principle existed when my family members came here in the late 19th and early 20th century, I wouldn’t be standing before you, and most of you would not be here either.

How do we find comfort when our elected officials, many of whom are themselves descended from poor immigrants, continue to support policies that separate families at our borders?

How do we find comfort when we know that foreign actors are continuing to try to disrupt our democratic processes?

How do we find comfort when virtually every day brings some new revelation regarding our ongoing abuse of God’s Creation? This week it was the plastic content in Arctic ice.

At the program on Saturday evening, as our 25-hour fast began, we heard from speakers who addressed our grief. Our member Danielle Kranjec, Senior Jewish Educator at Hillel-Jewish University Center, spoke about how she and her students experienced the 18th of Heshvan. Richard Carrington, who works in the poor neighborhoods of Pittsburgh trying to free children from the cycle of gang violence, spoke about the 203 funerals that he has attended for the kids he has worked with, children he could not save. Representatives of Casa San Jose spoke of the gratitude they had for the haven this country has offered them from dysfunctional Latin American governments and the violent, failed societies from which they came.

How can we indeed feel comforted?

Some might argue that we, the Jews, have to look out for ourselves. And that is certainly true, to some extent. “Im ein ani li mi li?” said our sage Hillel, 2000 years ago (Pirqei Avot 1:14): “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me.” But then Hillel goes on: “Ukhshe’ani le’atzmi, mah ani?” “And when I am ONLY for myself, what am I?”

Ve’im lo akhshav, eimatai?” “And if not now, when?”

Indeed.

Many of you know another mishnah from earlier in the same chapter of Pirqei Avot (1:2), one that was a kind of Jewish pop song a few decades back:

שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים

Shim’on the Righteous was one of the last of the Great Assembly. He said: The world rests on three things: on the Torah, and on service [to God], and on acts of lovingkindness.

But let’s face it: three is an excellent literary device if you’d like to make a point. So the rabbis did not limit themselves to only one statement of the things upon which the world stands. So at the end of chapter 1 of Pirqei Avot, there is another take:

רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַדִּין וְעַל הָאֱמֶת וְעַל הַשָּׁלוֹם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (זכריה ח) אֱמֶת וּמִשְׁפַּט שָׁלוֹם שִׁפְטוּ בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶם

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel used to say: on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace, as it is said: “execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16).

Whenever this sort of thing happens in traditional texts, you know some rabbi is going to eventually come along to ask the question: why do we need these two statements? Wouldn’t one have been enough? Does the world stand on three things, or six?

Sure enough, in the Jerusalem Talmud (Ta’anit 4:2), there is a passage that addresses this:

תמן תנינן שמעון הצדיק היה משירי כנסת הגדולה הוא היה אומר על שלשה דברים העולם עומד על התורה ועל העבודה ועל גמילות חסדים ושלשתן בפסוק אחד (ישעיהו נא) ואשים דברי בפיך זו תורה ובצל ידי כסיתיך זו גמילות חסדים ללמדך שכל מי שהוא עוסק בתורה ובגמילות חסדים זכה לישב בצילו של הקב”ה

There they taught: Shimon the Righteous was of the remnants of the Men of the Great Assembly. He used to say ‘the world rests on three things – on the Torah on the Service and on Acts of Loving-kindness.’ The three of them are found in one verse (Isaiah 51:16):

וָאָשִׂ֤ים דְּבָרַי֙ בְּפִ֔יךָ וּבְצֵ֥ל יָדִ֖י כִּסִּיתִ֑יךָ לִנְטֹ֤עַ שָׁמַ֙יִם֙ וְלִיסֹ֣ד אָ֔רֶץ וְלֵאמֹ֥ר לְצִיּ֖וֹן עַמִּי־אָֽתָּה׃

[God said] I have put My words in your mouth and sheltered you with My hand; I, who planted the skies and made firm the earth, have said to Zion: You are My people!

“I have put My words in your mouth…” refers to Torah, “…and sheltered you with My hand…” refers to acts of lovingkindness, to teach you that anyone who is occupied with Torah and acts of lovingkindness merits to sit in the shadow of the Holy One.

So the Gemara here is explaining that the first statement of three comes from Isaiah, an affirmation that we are God’s people. Shim’on the Righteous is interpreting this to say that by living Torah, by learning and teaching it and applying it by performing acts of lovingkindness, deeds that reinforce the qedushah between people, we will merit God’s presence in our lives. We will earn a coveted spot in the shadow of the Qadosh Barukh Hu

But I must say, I need a little more than that. I can “sit in the shadow of the Qadosh Barukh Hu” all day while the rest of the world crumbles around me. Rather, I need something else. Hence the need for the other statement of three. The Gemara goes on:

תמן תנינן רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר על שלשה דברים העולם עומד על הדין ועל האמת והשלום ושלשתן דבר אחד הן נעשה הדין נעשה אמת נעשה שלום א”ר מנא ושלשתן בפסוק אחד (זכריה ח׳:ט״ז) אמת ומשפט שלום שפטו בשעריכם

There, Rabban Shim’on ben Gamliel said: The world stands on three things: on truth, on justice, and on peace, as is said, “Execute truth, justice, and peace within your gates” (Zech. 8:16). These three are interlinked: when justice is done, truth is achieved, and peace is established (Pirqei Avot 1:18).

So this one, says the Gemara, is an entirely different way of viewing the world. Not about the specificities of Torah or service to God, but rather about essential values. We have to seek justice, says the prophet Zechariah. We have to speak truth. That is when peace will come. And Zechariah is even more explicit in the following verse:

וְאִ֣ישׁ ׀ אֶת־רָעַ֣ת רֵעֵ֗הוּ אַֽל־תַּחְשְׁבוּ֙ בִּלְבַבְכֶ֔ם וּשְׁבֻ֥עַת שֶׁ֖קֶר אַֽל־תֶּאֱהָ֑בוּ כִּ֧י אֶת־כָּל־אֵ֛לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֥ר שָׂנֵ֖אתִי נְאֻם־ה׃

And do not contrive evil against one another, and do not love perjury, because all those are things that I hate—declares the LORD.

We have to dedicate ourselves to justice and truth and avoid purposefully reviling one another. And not just justice for us, for the Jews, but for the whole world. That’s what the world stands on. Only then will peace come.

So it may be easy to say that, but how do we get there?

The essence of politics, ladies and gentlemen, is agreement and disagreement. We all agree that there are problems to be solved, and we have multiple paths forward, different ways to approach these challenges. We can agree with each other or disagree, and not only on the solutions, but on the problems themselves.

But we have to do it truthfully, and we have to agree that justice is the abiding principle. And I would like to suggest something that we can all consider, yet another value expressed in Pirqei Avot, and that is “kaf zekhut” – giving somebody with whom you disagree the benefit of the doubt.

Before you dismiss outright what somebody else firmly believes, consider their position, and see if you can even make their argument for them. There is always another side. The only way we can gain true comfort, justice, truth, and peace, is to be able to listen to and seek to understand the other with a fair, even-handed ear, to seek common ground, and to find the political means to bring people together rather than drive them apart.

Only then will we find comfort; only then will we truly sit together in the shadow of the Qadosh Barukh Hu.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/17/2019.)

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Sermons

Torch Song for Optimism – Emor 5779

At the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly in Montreal two weeks ago, I led a session for fellow Conservative/Masorti rabbis. It was the first time I had been asked to do so, although I have attended conventions for more than a decade. The chairs asked me to do something musical, so I led the attendees in a bunch of early Israeli and Mandate-period Hebrew songs, from the ‘30s through the early ‘60s, a period of music that I find particularly fascinating, particularly since the composers of the time were effectively creating the soundtrack for a new nation.

Some were about life as a חלוץ / pioneer working the land (“Mah Yafim Haleilot,” “Hora Mamtera,” etc.); some were about love and camaraderie in the time of war (“Yatzanu At,” “Hayu Zemanim”); some were reflective songs about the range of human emotion (“Ruah Stav,” “Kalaniyot”). Afterwards, one of the participants told me about how much she loved these songs, how they had transported her to, as she put it, “simpler times.”

We are fortunate this week in Pittsburgh to hear the music of one of the most hopeful artists in the Israeli pop canon, David Broza. Broza’s career now spans four decades, and while I am sure that he will display his artistry on Thursday evening in playing the Spanish music that he truly loves, there is no question that he will play, probably toward the end of the concert, his most well-known song, the anthem that put him on the map: Yihyeh Tov. This song is almost absurdly hopeful; an ode to peace and a torch song for optimism. In 1977, when the lyrics were written by the poet and songwriter Yehonatan Geffen, peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors was a mere fantasy; the text references, as we shall see, the visit of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Israel of that year, which ultimately led to the Camp David Accords, signed a year later.

I must confess from the outset that this song makes me cry, not only for its unbounded optimism, but also for the tragic sense of loss that I feel when I read the lyrics closely. I don’t need to review the history of Israel’s armed conflicts since the song was written, but we all know that real peace has not yet arrived.

And the bloodshed continues, yielding so much more pain and grief and loss. Just two weeks ago, there were rockets from Gaza and return fire from Israel, with casualties on both sides.

As was pointed out at the Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day, a very somber day) ceremony that I attended at the convention, led by our Israeli Masorti colleagues, 23,741 Israelis have died fighting in Israel’s wars, and 3,146 more have died in terrorist acts in Israel.

What makes me misty-eyed when I hear this song is that for many Jews in Israel, in America, and around the world, looking forward to a vision of peace as Broza does used to be the norm. Despite the situation in the 1970s, when Israel was still at war with the entire Arab world, when you could not buy Pepsi or Toyotas in Israel due to the Arab boycott, when the “Three Nos” of the 1967 Khartoum Resolution still hung in the air: No peace, no recognition, no negotiations with Israel, even so, there was still a palpable sense of optimism. Mahar, we sang, tomorrow there will be peace.

In the final stanza, the song references Isaiah’s messianic vision of a time of peace:

וְגָ֤ר זְאֵב֙ עִם־כֶּ֔בֶשׂ וְנָמֵ֖ר עִם־גְּדִ֣י יִרְבָּ֑ץ וְעֵ֨גֶל וּכְפִ֤יר וּמְרִיא֙ יַחְדָּ֔ו וְנַ֥עַר קָטֹ֖ן נֹהֵ֥ג בָּֽם׃

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, The leopard lie down with the kid; The calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together, with a little boy to herd them. (Isaiah 11:6)

Ladies and gentlemen, I cannot live in a context in which we throw up our hands and say, “We tried and failed; end of story.” I cannot live in a world in which we pessimistically believe that every option has been tried and exhausted, and there is nothing left to do; lo yihyeh tov – it will not be good.

I cannot allow myself to think that those 23,741 Israeli soldiers will be solely martyrs to the cause of Israel’s ongoing existence rather than to the cause of peace, and that those numbers will only continue to rise. In every single Amidah, and virtually every Kaddish that we recite, the final request of God is for peace. How can we resign ourselves to eternal struggle, when we accept that people will continue to die? How can we not recommit ourselves again and again to finding a peaceful solution?

How can we abandon the visions of Isaiah, of Yehonatan Geffen, of David Broza? How can we so easily dismiss the possibility of laying down our sword and shield?

It is true that we are no longer living in the “simpler times” that nostalgic songs invoke. Nonetheless, we cannot succumb to the forces of pessimism. I am not going to resign myself to that kind of future. Will you? Will we?

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/18/2019.)

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Sermons

Israel, History, and the Current Moment – Mattot-Mas’ei 5778

On this trip to Israel, I experienced Israel’s true national religion: kaduregel, known to the rest of the world as football, but that game which we Americans call soccer. From the moment we landed at Ben Gurion Airport, when our taxi driver insisted on trying to talk to me about soccer all the way to Tel Aviv, to the games I watched with my son at various scenic locales (on the Tel Aviv beach, literally in the streets of Jerusalem, in the airport as we waited for our departing flight), the constant subject was the World Cup, which is a far bigger deal, apparently, than either the Stanley Cup or the Superbowl. (I know! Hard to believe!)

Soccer is all about this moment, about the exhilaration of scoring, of winning, of watching the sublime mechanics of team sports and admiring the talents of super-human players. It is something that unites Arab and Jew, Christian, Muslim and Druze, Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Labour and Likud, black and white, and so forth. In that exceptionally divided land, the World Cup brings everybody together. Sure, when I saw the Russia-Croatia game seated outdoors at a Jerusalem restaurant surrounded by screens, the crowd seemed evenly split between those cheering for Russia and those rooting for Croatia, but it’s all in good fun.

However, just as present in the Israeli psyche and across the land in memorials, museums, politics and places, is history. The past. And while there is history in soccer (this is the first time that England made the semifinal in 28 years, for example), once the World Cup is over, the excitement lays low for another four years.

Not so with the history of Israel. You can’t ever get away from history in the Promised Land. Not in a place with names from the Tanakh (the Hebrew bible), with memorial statues and plaques wherever you look, where you are greeted in the airport by a bust of Ben Gurion and a mosaic from an ancient synagogue, where every tourist itinerary includes visits to sites that are thousands of years old. Depending on how you count, there have been about 17 different ruling bodies over the historic land of Israel in the last 3,000 years, from the time of King David’s unified rule; each left their mark on the land, a land that is as soaked in blood as it is in qedushah, holiness.

One thing that drove this point home for me on my most recent trip was the Yitzhak Rabin Centre, a relatively new museum, only about 13 years old, on the campus of Tel Aviv University. I had never been there before.

The way that this museum works is that it is structured around Rabin’s life; you start at the top of a downward spiral, learning about his early years and his rise as one of Israel’s foremost military leaders, coming eventually to his two terms as Prime Minister and of course, his assassination at the hands of a Jewish right-wing extremist angered by Israel’s signing of the Oslo peace accords. Along the course of his life, entryways lead off to rooms on the side that include more general descriptions of the Israeli and world context that are the background to Rabin’s personal story. All the while, in the center of the building, you hear the music of Rabin’s favorite song, HaRe’ut / “The Fellowship”. Written after the first year of the War of Independence by the Israeli poet Hayyim Gouri and set to music by Sasha Argov, who created the popular sounds of the new state, the song captures marvelously the yearning for those comrades who died for the sake of establishing the new State of Israel:

על הנגב יורד ליל הסתיו
ומצית כוכבים חרש חרש
עת הרוח עובר על הסף
עננים מהלכים על הדרך

כבר שנה לא הרגשנו כמעט
איך עברו הזמנים בשדותינו
כבר שנה ונותרנו מעט
מה רבים שאינם כבר בינינו

אך נזכור את כולם
את יפי הבלורית והתואר
כי רעות שכזאת לעולם
לא תיתן את ליבנו לשכוח
אהבה מקודשת בדם
את תשובי בינינו לפרוח

הרעות נשאנוך בלי מילים
אפורה עקשנית ושותקת
מלילות האימה הגדולים
את נותרת בהירה ודולקת

הרעות כנערייך כולם
שוב בשמך נחייך ונלכה
כי רעים שנפלו על חרבם
את חייך הותירו לזכר

Al hanegev yored leil hastav
Umatzit kokhavim heresh heresh
Et haruah over al hasaf
Ananim mehalkhim al haderekh.

Kvar shana, lo hirgashnu kim’at
Eikh avru hazmanim bisdoteinu.
Kvar shana, venotarnu me’at
Ma rabim she’einam kvar beineinu.

Akh nizkor et kulam
Et yafei hablorit vehatoar
Ki re’ut shekazot le’olam
Lo titen et libenu lishkoah
Ahava mekudeshet bedam
At tashuvi beinenu lifro’ah.

Hare’ut, nesanukh bli milim
Afora, akshanit veshoteket
Milelot ha’eima hagdolim
At noteret behirah vedoleket

Hare’ut, kin’arayikh kulam
Shuv bishmekh nehayekh venelekha
Ki re’im shenaflu al harbam
Et hayyekh hotiru lezecher

Venizkor et kulam
Et yafei hablorit vehatohar
Ki re’ut shekazot le’olam
Lo titen et libenu lishko’ah
Ahava mekudeshet bedam
At tashuvi beinenu lifro’ah.

An autumn night descends on the Negev
And gently, gently lights up the stars
While the wind blows on the threshold
Clouds go on their way.

Already a year, and we almost didn’t notice
How the time has passed in our fields
Already a year, and few of us remain
So many are no longer among us.

But we’ll remember them all
The elegant, the handsome
Because fellowship like this will never
Permit our hearts to forget
Love sanctified with blood
will once more bloom among us

Fellowship, we bear you with no words
Gray, stubborn and silent
Of the nights of great terror
You remained bright and lit

Fellowship, as did all your youths
Again in your name we will smile and go foreword
Because friends that have fallen on their swords
Left your life as a monument

But we’ll remember them all
The elegant, the handsome
Because fellowship like this will never
Permit our hearts to forget
Love sanctified with blood
will once more bloom among us

he song brings tears to my eyes whenever I hear it. And so I was walking through this museum, constantly tearing up as the beautiful and tragic story of Yitzhak Rabin unfolded: a man of war who sought peace and paid the ultimate price. His is merely one chapter in the many ironies of that small strip of land, and the pain and glory and frustration and pride that are all mixed together in the Israeli narrative.

Contrary to what you might think, I do not believe that this museum is a naive peacenik display that presents a hagiography of Rabin while appealing to the left’s desire to continue to pursue foolishly the two-state solution when everybody else agrees that it is dead. Not at all. Rather, this museum displays over and over the nearly insurmountable challenges that Israel faces: the need to protect her people and her territory alongside the horrible, painful costs of war, the essential relationship between military strategy and peaceful coexistence. Rabin lived and died knowing that both war and peace are expensive, just in different ways.

Last Shabbat I davened on Shabbat morning at the Masorti (Conservative) synagogue on Agron St. in central Jerusalem, where of course I bumped into fellow travelers, including the Federation’s regular visiting rabbi, Danny Schiff. Rabbi Adam Frank, who is the rabbi of that congregation, has the somewhat-enviable position of having a different traveling group of American Jews every Shabbat, He could actually give the same sermon every single week, although the handful of Jerusalem-based regulars might eventually complain. (He is a proud vegetarian, like myself, and have heard him give the “you-should-be-vegetarian-too” sermon at least twice.)

But last week it was about history and current events. It was about how Israel is portrayed in foreign media and on American college campuses, and how the reality of the situation is far more complex, one that requires a far greater knowledge of history than most people have. He told the following story:

Suppose you watch a TV show in which you see a pack of wolves – mean, snarling, slobbering wolves – howling and chasing after a fox – a cute, furry, defenseless fox. The wolves chase, the fox runs, and eventually the fox evades the mean, ugly wolves and makes it to her lair. Relieved, you turn off the TV.

What you do not see is what follows: the fox returns to her young, dropping the wolf cub it had taken into the mouths of her own pups.

Now, the image is perhaps over-simplified, but the message is clear: there is always more to the story. It is never as clear-cut as, “The Palestinians are the aggressors; they are building tunnels with cement that could be used to build new homes for their people, and sending burning kites over the border to destroy Israeli crops.” Nor is it as simple as, “The Israelis have created an open-air prison in Gaza, limiting the transfer of resources as they continue to oppress the Palestinian people.” Just as there is no “apartheid” or “genocide” being committed by either party. And it is definitely not so simple as for either side to point and say, “But they started it.”

There is history. There is context. And it can be hard to see through all of the spin.

Yitzhak Rabin was a leader who knew war and peace, who understood context and history, who did not seek power for selfish reasons, but sincerely cared about his work for all of the people crowded together in that tiny, highly-charged area. I wish that there were leaders like him today.

Yes, the history of the land of Israel is complex, painful, and ubiquitous. Yes, there are many grievances on both sides. Yes, compromise hurts. But so does the status quo. And, as with soccer, there are things that unite us, and it is up to us to find them and build on them.

As Jews, we are commanded to offer words of prayer three times daily. In the course of every Jewish service, we offer statements about Israel: about restoring us to our land, about rebuilding and bringing peace to Jerusalem / Yerushalayim / Ir shalom, the “City of Peace.” The one prayer a week we offer for Medinat Yisrael, the modern State of Israel, which we read on Shabbat morning, reminds us not only that we seek strength for those who defend the State, but also strength to its leaders in bringing about the peace for which we pray.

The Psalmist (34:15) tells us, “Baqqesh shalom verodfehu.” Seek peace and pursue it. The life and legacy of Yitzhak Rabin teach us that those who have fought and lost comrades can ultimately seek peace, and the greater lessons of history show that this is the ultimate challenge. As Rabin did, we must rise from the depths of pain and loss to the challenge of reaching out for the greater good.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 7/14/2018.)