Rosh Hashanah Morning 5770
When I began to think about the future of Judaism, I asked friends what came to mind for them. Some said the community had to become more accepting of non-Jewish partners, others mentioned the importance of education, and a few mentioned the need for a Judaism with heart. No one mentioned what I’m going to talk about this morning, which is Israel. Why Israel at all? For many in the sanctuary, Israel is thousands of miles away and has little to do with our lives in Santa Fe. The very word stirs deep emotions that are complicated. You may be wondering what Israel has to do with the future of anything, including itself. How could you think otherwise if your only knowledge comes from the media, and the first words that come to mind when you think of Israel are war, occupation, and settlements? Why would you want anything to do with such a place, especially when your Jewishness involuntarily connects you with this bellicose place?
My intention this morning is to give you a more expansive picture of the land, one that is not political or propagandist, but admittedly personal. I’m going to tell you about the Israel I love and why I see it as key to the future of Judaism. Like a long marriage with its challenges, for decades I’ve had moments when I just want to excise this relationship from my heart. Yet I know this: if I’m a Jew, Israel is part of my life. All Jews have fractional ownership in Israel: we each get a little piece of it as our collective inheritance. It is ours for free, and the only hitch is that we can’t walk away from it. To be a Jew is to support Israel’s unconditional right to exist. No other country has its statehood challenged, and nor should Israel. Just this past week the Toronto Film Festival had protesters objecting to Israeli films being shown about Tel Aviv. They called it “contested ground” in an “apartheid state.”
I’ve called this talk “Why Israel?” Why do we need a Jewish homeland? When I was a child, I’d know what subjects were not for everyone to hear by the tone of my parents’ voices. When they spoke about a certain kind of woman or if they said “Jewish” in public, they dropped their voices–and this was in New York. It wasn’t until later that I understood why they did this. Israel was why I didn’t grow up with my parents’ fear: I had a place to go. Because Israel and I are of the same generation, I’ve never known the insecurity of earlier generations, and I don’t want to. Imagining a world without Israel is like living in a world without a room of one’s own. History has shown us what it is like always to live at the mercy of one’s host country.
I had been raised to love Israel, where Jews looked like Paul Newman, where women fought alongside men in an army that was powerful, egalitarian, and moral. I dropped coins into the Jewish National Fund blue box each week to plant trees for my noble brothers and sisters. The social experiment of the kibbutzim, the scientific advances, and the resurrection of a nearly beaten people meant a great deal to a child growing up in a country where Jews were rarely players outside home or synagogue. I learned in Hebrew school that the late 19th century settlers were pioneers no less heroic than Davy Crockett. They drained swamps, built hospitals, and made the desert bloom. Jews, ground for centuries by poverty, illiteracy, and illness, began to dream of a country where Jews could be free to live as equal citizens. They believed more in God’s people than God. They chose the language of the Bible, Hebrew, for their everyday communication. I dreamed of visiting this heroic place where everyone spoke Hebrew. Our teachers gave us a rosy impression of our Arab neighbors who were like our cousins. That wasn’t the whole picture. Besides the 30,000 who died in the War of Independence, we paid a great price for statehood. For the first time in two thousand years, we had power and were players in a very imperfect world. We shed our innocence and recognized that that guilt would be part of our lives. We would commit violent and sometimes wrong acts. How would the new nation reflect the values of Judaism? Holocaust scholar Rabbi Irving Greenberg writes, “Despite the sense of victimization that drove Jewry, the new Jewish consensus insisted–with Israel’s at the forefront–that the newly won Jewish power must be used with ethical restraint. Ethical power maximizes possible good (and life) and minimizes possible evil (and death).” Every soldier would study an ethical code that states: “Israeli army servicemen and women will use their weapons only for the purpose of their mission, only to the extent necessary and will maintain their humanity even during combat.” Golda Meir said to Nasser after the 73 war, “I will forgive you killing my children, but I will not forgive you turning them into murderers.”
Few know about the ethical bedrock and lofty ideals upon which the state was built. The events of the last thirty years have made the story of Israel more nuanced. What I’m describing is its idealistic intention. But it won’t be enough. You need to be there to see past, present, and future. Only a visit can give you evidence for hope. I’m talking about Israel not only to whet your curiosity about it. HaMakom is taking a trip to Israel this year, and I look forward to being with you on a journey of abundant surprises.
I first visited Israel with my rabbi, Harold Schulweis, in 1979. It was a wonderful year to visit, the beginning of the first peace accord with Egypt, and everyone was filled with hope. Rabbi Schulweis took about 35 people from his synagogue on an odyssey that would change the life of at least one person, me. Frankly, the main draw of the trip for me was to be with the rabbi and watch him tie his shoelaces for ten days.
What I came away with was not only radical amazement in seeing how a country was born from the ashes of the Holocaust, but in seeing that human beings can surmount tragedy to live and love again. I was in a country where children came first, where kibbutzim made bomb shelters into beautiful alternative music spaces, and where both science and the arts flourished. All the while I was standing upon land that had been claimed by many peoples and that had absorbed much blood. Israel is a deep country with layers of civilizations that are part of its life today. All I’d known of the country before I walked it had been the surface. History began to come alive as I stood where it had taken place. I was walking where Abraham and Sarah had walked when the land was called Canaan. To know Israel is feel it vertically through your feet. We are a nation of walkers. Our three big holidays, Pesah, Shavuot, and Sukkot, are called the regalim, which means feet. We walked to Jerusalem three times a year. We walked from Israel to Egypt to escape starvation and we remained there until Moses led us to the land God promised Abraham. It took forty years and our shoes never wore out. When we walked home, we named the land Israel. The name comes from Jacob, renamed Israel after he faced his shadow. He wrestled with it until dawn and wouldn’t let go until the shadow named him. His name became Israel, the one who wrestles with God, and he prevailed. Some of that spirit still lives in the country named for him. A few hundred years later King Solomon built a great Temple in Jerusalem in the land his father, David, had conquered. It was no match for its many invaders and in 586 b.c.e the Babylonians destroyed the Temple and forced the people into exile. Their feet brought them home again to build a Second Temple that was destroyed by the Romans in 70 c.e. We didn’t return to the land for two thousand years. We wandered went from country to country, looking for a safe place where we could be Jews. The Torah, always with us, became our homeland in reminding us of where we once lived. Whether we were in India, Bolivia, or the Bronx, we prayed towards Jerusalem, and we never stopped praying that the scattered remnant of the people would return one day to the land. Around 130 years ago the return began, and young Jews left the pogroms for the land of milk and honey they had read about in Torah. They had read Theodor Herzl’s book about Palestine becoming a Jewish homeland. Although he wasn’t remotely religious, he saw this as a solution to anti-Semitism. Tailors became farmers in the new social experiment that would return us to the land. What they found was not the land described in the Bible but an arid, stony wilderness. Not all the citizens of Palestine rejoiced in the return. Arabs had no wish for the flag to change from Great Britain to Israel. When the United Nations, in 1948, agreed to partition the land between Jews and Arabs, the Jews accepted it but the Arabs didn’t. War broke out on the day of independence. Despite having no weapons and being attacked by several countries, the Israelis defended their borders, and each subsequent military victory became part of the Israeli mystique. This is the legacy that Israel struggles with today, to find a path to peace without war. I’ve been to many places that I wish I would revisit, and I rarely do. When I left Israel, I knew I’d be back. After living there in 1985, the connection was even stronger. Was it the falafel, the Jerusalem summer nights with a cobalt sky, the beauty of the ancient city built of limestone, or my brave and idealistic Israeli friends who had become a different kind of Jew? They had become effortless Jews, no longer acutely aware of their difference from the majority and careful about their behavior. They were living in a country that followed a Jewish calendar, had kosher food, and flew a flag with a Star of David. They had chosen to live with war and less comfort, and I saw it in their eyes. Ever since my trip with Rabbi Schulweis, I’ve wanted to take my friends to Israel, because I knew it made a difference in Jewish lives that cannot be described. Our trip will take us to the natural beauty of the land as well as visiting ancient sites and modern cities. You’ll meet people like Lusia Schimmel, our Polish translator who survived the camps to raise a family; Alice and Moshe Shalvi, Orthodox peace activists and feminists who made aliyah over fifty years ago; and Jacob and David Gilat, the “boys”, now in their seventies, I wrote about in Jacob’s Rescue. We’ll also visit with our Palestinian and Jewish friends from Creativity for Peace. I could go on and describe the wild flowers and blooming almond trees, the kibbutz we will stay at, the artists we’ll meet, but I’ll stop. If you’re interested, we have flyers in the lobby. Our intention is to give you a profound experience that will enlighten, clarify and strengthen your relationship to Judaism, its people, and yourself. We also expect to have a terrific time. I hope you’ll join us for a life-changing trip.