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Kol Nidre 5780 - "On the other hand, Israel"

There’s a fine tradition in Judaism — the Kol Nidre sermon starts with a joke.  Far be it from me to undermine tradition.  So here goes.

Man goes into a bar in Jerusalem.  Says to the bartender, “I’m looking for a rabbi.”  Bartender says, “nu, in Yerushalayim?  You can’t find a rabbi?”  Guy says to the bartender, “Well I’m looking for a certain kind of rabbi.”  Bartender says, “What, Haredi, Reform?” 

“No, I want a one-handed rabbi.”

Bartender says, “A one-handed rabbi?  Why do you want a one-handed rabbi?”

Guy says, “Every time I ask a rabbi a question, instead of giving me a straight answer, they say, ‘well, on the one hand this, and on the other hand that!”

It’s true.  Sometimes rabbis try to give every side of an argument a hearing.

On the other hand, if you know me, you know I don’t exactly shy away from giving my opinion.

Except on one topic where I’m a little reluctant.  A topic we don’t seem to talk about much here.  You might call it the third rail of CBE.

That topic?  Israel.

It’s no great insight that our country is polarized, that 24-hour cable news makes its money from that polarization, that Twitter and Facebook are now part of that frenzied ecosystem.  But some conversations are served poorly by this kind of argument.  Who could blame us for wanting to avoid yet another fight.  After all, nobody wants to be in the position of choosing between losing an argument and losing a friend.

I mentioned on Rosh haShanah that all of my High Holiday drashot will connect in some way to the theme of home.  Today, most of us are grateful that Israel is, unmistakably, a Jewish home.  But, somehow, this little country seems to get a disproportionate amount of attention in the world.

Outsized praise from some.  Outsized criticism from others.  Sometimes, the world seems obsessed. 

What’s a nice synagogue do? 

Well, for starters, we can start talking.

Of course, there’re no easy answers when it come to Israel.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is just not being honest.

So this is going to be an “on one hand and on the other hand” kinda sermon.

So where do we start?  As you may have read, I started with the Israelis.  In the past month, I’ve spoken with over a dozen people at CBE — some native-born Israeli, some folks who lived there.  Much of this sermon is drawn from those first-person conversations.

We are grateful, tonight, that Jews even exist to have such conversations.  Jewish existence is something we take for granted at our own peril.  No doubt you know another joke, the one about Jewish holidays.  They can all be summed up in three sentences.  “They tried to kill us.  We won.  Let’s eat.”

Funny, sure.  But that humor masks an existential fear.  So many Jewish holidays are indeed about escaping mass death.

Yom Kippur, on the other hand, is about facing the death of the spirit.  Reckoning with our souls.  And we don’t even get to eat.

On the other hand (see I told you!) who can resist a good three-part list?

So, without further ado, some thoughts on Israel — after a lot of thought, and some wonderful conversations with CBE congregants — based on an old joke.


Part One: They tried to kill us.

The modern state of Israel was born in the shadow of the greatest catastrophe in Jewish history.  We do not insult the memory of our six million — nor that of the six million non-Jews — by claiming that the creation of the state of Israel is vindication of their deaths.  But the Shoah was only the culmination of two millennia of persecution.

Jews should be proud that, though stateless and oppressed, we achieved nothing less than greatness for those two millennia: the Talmud, Kabbalah, our prayer books were all realized in galut, in exile — as were countless milestones in commerce, literature, music, art, philanthropy.

On the other hand, those triumphs were realized by a people in constant fear of what unforeseen calamity would befall them, what imaginary crime could only be repaid in blood.

Even here, seemingly safe in the leafy streets of Acton, we have seen Jew-hatred rear its ugly head, in a yellow star and the word Jude painted on a school ball field, not a quarter mile from this building.  Last year, one of our kids found a swastika and a Klan hood drawn on a school bathroom.  And just last month, a student joked — joked? – on an Instagram post, “Like and subscribe to kill one jew.”

I am grateful for awesome kids like Alex Magun and Ben Perkins, who stood up for themselves — and for all of us — and reported these incidents.  I am grateful too for the responsiveness of the A-B superintendent, Peter Light, in confronting these acts of hate.

Nevertheless, some congregants have expressed to me a worry that we shouldn’t be too loud in our demands for action — maybe complaining would just bring more negative attention?

As you may already know, I disagree.  White nationalist hate should be met with strong and forceful condemnation.  But I understand the fear and worry over how Jews are perceived in a non-Jewish community.  It is a fear felt by every diaspora Jewish community in history.

After all, in too many of those communities, they tried to kill us.

Zionism was born partly from a desire not to be in that position.  Not to have to worry about what the czar would do, what the cardinal would do, what the neighbors would think.

It was no surprise that, when the state of Israel declared it’s independence – then, too, they tried to kill us.

Walking through Har Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery, one is overwhelmed by the sheer number of graves – lost lives, broken families – that mark the quest for mere survival. 

The war for Israel’s existence was fought not once, but over and over.  A congregant invited me to imagine what it’s like to grow up as a child knowing what bombs look like, what sirens sound like, what bomb shelters smell like.  To be a child, and be shown a poster in a child’s classroom, illustrating no less than 24 different types of land mines.

You may not wish to glorify battle.  I don’t either.  I invite you, then, to consider then the achievements Israel has realized, in the face of possible annihilation, through negotiation.  At this moment in US history, when our two major political parties can’t even sit down with each other, let alone talk, consider Israel’s recent history.

Camp David.  Peace with Egypt.  Giving up Sinai.  Peace with Jordan.  Negotiating with Arafat.  Negotiating with Syria.  Negotiating with abu Mazen.

There are those who blithely remark, “there will never be peace between the Jews and the Arabs.”  Rather than succumb to such fatalism, we know better.

We know that there is peace between Israel and Egypt and Jordan because Israelis have been willing to sit at the same table with sworn enemies, located not around the globe, but over there, just beyond those hills. 

Imagine sitting down with people who have said, not in hushed tones behind closed doors, but out loud, in the bright light of press room and podium, that they would rather see you dead.

You will forgive the Israelis if they are sometimes reluctant.  But the reality is that they have come to the table countless times – a legacy of diplomacy of which we can be proud.

That Israel exists is no doubt due to its warriors.  But it is also due to its diplomats and visionaries.

Dreamers who sat down with sworn enemies and hammered out a path to peace.


Part Two: We won.

Yes, they tried to kill us.  The attempted murder wasn’t just physical.  It was also psychological.  It was argued that Jews in Israel represented a foreign invasion.  Israel wasn’t our land.  We were interlopers.  We were colonizers.

We need to remind the world — and, sometimes, remind ourselves — Jews have been a continuous presence in the land of Israel for 3000 years.

The Jews who created modern-day Israel, who battled swampland and malaria and exhaustion, were not scheming industrialists determined to excavate gold or copper behind the backs of an unsuspecting indigenous people.  They were, rather, Jews determined to come home.  Determined to excavate their majestic heritage – our heritage – from the rubble of two millennia of exile.

An exile that tore at the soul of Jews for the entirety of those two millennia.  You can hear it in the prayers we pray, every day, composed in the shadow of our destroyed Temple in Jerusalem.  Zion and Jerusalem are mentioned no less than five times in the daily Amidah prayer.

Lirushalayim ir'cha b'rachamim tashuv, we begged.  "Return to Jerusalem, Your city…” Baruch Ata YHVH, Boneh Yerushalayim.  “Blessed are You, Ado-nai, Builder of Jerusalem."

We longed, as a people, for redemption.  Techezenah eineinu b'shuv’cha l'Tziyon... "May our eyes behold Your return to Zion... Baruch Atah Ado-nai, ha-machazir sh'chinato l'Tziyon.  “Blessed are You, Who Restores the Divine Presence to Zion.” 

We said these words — we say them today — facing Jerusalem.

Even when we take out the Torah, our most holy of holy objects, we remember Israel:

Ki miTzion teitze Torah, u’dvar YHVH m’irushalayim.  “Torah comes out of Zion, and the word of God from Jerusalem.”

So when we won, we didn’t just win a war.  We won the right to be in places that we had dreamed of, ached for, for centuries.

Shir ha-ma’a’lot b’shuv YHVH et shivat Tziyot hayinu b’cholmim.  On Shabbat and holidays, we start the blessing after meals with Psalm 126.  “When God returns us to dwell in Zion, it’ll be like we’re dreaming.”  Being in Israel feels dreamlike.  Miraculous even.

But here’s where that other hand comes in. 

Yes, Jews always belong in Israel.  We have always been there.  But on the other hand, other peoples have been there too.  For centuries, the Palestinian people have been there.  The Zionist miracle, we must remember, established Jewish autonomy in a land in which Jews had become the minority.

Even miracles can be complicated.

Sometimes, writes the Israeli reporter and columnist Ari Shavit, in his beautifully painful book My Promised Land, it feels like “the miracle is based on denial.”  How we won was sometimes gut wrenching.  “Bulldozers razed Palestinian villages,” writes Shavit, “warrants confiscated Palestinian land, laws revoked Palestinians’ citizenship and annulled their homeland.”

Of course, on the other hand, what land hasn’t left destruction in the wake of its creation?  This land, for instance.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was named after the indigenous Massachusee.  We don’t know exactly what that word means, because the people who named it aren’t here to tell us.  Squanto, who famously aided Plymouth Colony commander Myles Standish, was a member of a band of Wampanoag peoples called the Patuxet — a people obliterated by plague and genocide.

And, on yet another hand, don’t we as Jews want better?

We are proud of Israel, this tiny nation of remarkable achievement.  I felt it walking the halls of Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem, where I saw men with tzitzit and women in Muslim hijab both bring their children, neither segregated, neither turned away.

We’re proud of Israel’s world-class technical achievements — mentioned by so many congregants I interviewed — technological innovation, marvels in solar power and desalinization, wonders beyond imagining.

We are proud too of Israel’s sharing of these marvels with other nations.  Even those nations who offer little but ill will in return.

We’re proud too that Israel makes itself known as a beacon of gay rights and women’s rights, in a region – and a world – where both are hard to come by.  A congregant described to me bafflement at learning of the US military’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, having served for years in the IDF, without incident, with openly gay soldiers.

And, on the other hand, we know that none of those achievements can soothe the frustration of Palestinians who suffered the demolition of their houses, who are still attacked by Jewish settlers with no expectation of consequence, who today are barely closer to self-rule than they were 50 years ago.

On the one hand, we know that adversaries don’t turn into friends just because we want them to.  A congregant lamented to me what seemed to be a naiveté about this fact on the Left.  On the other hand, we wonder if miTzion teitzei Torah, if “Torah can come forth from Zion” when it sometimes seems that compassion is lacking in Zion.

And when, perhaps, its decisions may make it less safe.  I sat with a group of rabbis at Hebrew College a couple of months ago, learning with Rabbi Art Green.  Nobody loves Israel more than Art.  But he reminded us of our obligation to take the car keys away from someone who’s had a few too many. “Israel is driving drunk,” the rabbi said, bluntly.  “The demise of the two-state solution is suicidal.”

Many Jews can’t help but be ambivalent. On the one hand, passionate love for Israel.  On the other hand, disappointment or even anger about its decisions.  On the one hand, nachas, immense pride in this gutsy little country that beat the odds.  On the other hand, sadness and frustration.

They tried to kill us.  We won.

Hayinu B’cholmim.  Sometimes it feels like a dream.  In the words of one congregant, Israel is “the whitewashed but crumbling walls of tel aviv, their bauhaus curves gleaming, blinding on a summer day, groups of twos and fours strolling down rothschild, sunglasses and a stop in a little sushi kiosk, the beach in bat yam, black kippot and track pants, a little shop in ramat gan, stuffed to the gills, blue signs for ice cream pops and lotto, the regular group of men outside at the orange plastic table, kishkesh and toto.”

And, on the other hand, the same congregant added, sometimes it feels like “sending our teenage boys to become snipers to shoot children on torn up hillsides where tires burn.”

This is what winning feels like.  It feels like pride.  It feels like uncertainty.  It feels like boundless love.  It feels like the fear of a mother who has to send her boy off to the army.  It feels like the uneasiness of having control of millions of people who are your adversaries, but who yearn for the same thing you do.  It feels like eyes full of wonder, eyes full of tears.


Part Three:  Let’s Eat

Anyone who’s been there knows about Israeli hospitality.  I think it’s accurate to say that the Jewish value of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests, has been perfected by Israelis.  It’s not uncommon in Israel for someone to drop by, unannounced, just to say hi, share a cup of tea, share the neighborhood gossip. 

So many congregants described a feeling of camaraderie in a nation that was made up of countless ethnicities — Polish and Russian Jews, Ethiopian and Iraqi Jews, Yemeni and Iranian and American Jews.  All of them, in just 70 years, creating a unified country. 

In the words of one congregant, Israel is “more than home.  It is a heart.”  Sometimes, the whole country feels like family.

And, on the other hand, the power structure in Israel sometimes feels like anything but. 

Yes, they tried to kill us.  We won.  But now that we sit down to eat, we ask — who gets a place at the table?

The widening income gap, and the weakening of Israel’s once-famed social safety net, means that too many poor Israelis now find it hard to pay the bills.  One congregant described to me deep shame that Holocaust survivors in a Jewish state often go hungry.

The predominance of Ashkenazi Jews in the early Zionist movement meant that Mizrachi Israelis, Jews from Arab countries, were often shut out from positions of power.  A congregant I interviewed remembered an Israel where Mizrachi music was derided as “criminal music,” prohibited from being played on the radio.  He further described the shock upon discovering that he’d had a sister who’d died in a Mizrachi refugee camp in the 1950s, whose body was taken from her parents.  The Ashkenazi-run government buried her without telling the family the location of the grave.  To this day, he does not know where the government — a Jewish government — buried his sister.

And while Mizrachi Jews have since risen in status in Israeli society, the same cannot be said for Ethiopian Jews.  Numerous congregants I spoke with described the shame of seeing Ethiopian Israelis subject to discrimination, and — at times — blatant racism.

Meanwhile, the monopolization of Jewish ritual life by an increasingly inflexible Orthodox rabbinate has left women as second-class citizens at our holiest sites, even subject to physical violence when they read Torah at the Kotel, the Western Wall.  In the words of one congregant, the segregation of women is “barbaric,” a “disgrace.”  Are they “animals, to be caged behind bars?  Prisoners?”

And it also means that non-Orthodox Judaism is disrespected and disempowered.  Another congregant expressed outrage at a parliamentary system that allows Orthodox parties to “extort money for schools, impose their ideas onto rest of Israelis, prohibit buses from running on Shabbat,” and restrict “advertisements picturing women.”

I heard more than one story of Haredi Jews denigrating non-Orthodox Jews — us — as not really Jews.

The startling fact is that there is only one country in the world where Cantor Sarra and I cannot perform a legally sanctioned Jewish wedding.  That country is Israel.

It was just last year that Conservative Rabbi Dov Haiyun was awoken at 5:30am, at his home in Haifa, to a knock on the door from two police officers who detained him, put him in the back of a van, and questioned him — all for the crime of conducting a Jewish wedding outside the auspices of Israel’s Orthodox Chief Rabbinate.

And, finally, the Israeli government’s recent restrictions on critics of the country have meant a crackdown on the civil liberties of travelers to Israel — including Jews.  I recently watched a video of a Jewish group attempting to rebuild a road traveled by Palestinians — a group that included a rabbinic colleague, Arik Ascherman, and my friend Ari Bloomekatz, both Zionists — and saw, to my horror, the IDF resort to physical assault in preventing the group from continuing its work.

A few years back, I was blessed to learn with former Knesset member Rabbi Michael Melchior.  He talked about his desire for Israel to be a better place, to live up to its most cherished values.  He acknowledged that some people think it’s wiser not to talk about Israel’s problems.  In other words, focus on the positive.

There’s only one problem.  For the new generation of Jews, the rabbi taught, “it doesn’t work.”  Maybe you know some of these young Jews.  Maybe you are one.  “The best way of connecting people to Israel,” Melchior concluded, “is to tell them about its dilemmas.”

6 million Jews live in Israel, almost half the world’s Jewish population,.  Closing our eyes to our cousins in Israel is simply not an option.  After all, Israel’s flag looks like our tallitot.  But if we love Israel, closing our eyes to its problems is also not an option.

Ironically, perhaps, a new spiritual openness seems to be emerging in Israel itself.  The wall between chiloni and dati, between secular and religious, is showing some cracks.  “Non-religious” Israeli twenty-somethings are heading off to India and Tibet after their IDF service, coming back hungering for meaning.  And they’re finding it, in a newfound interest in Breslover chasidut, in Heschel, in Soloveichek — even in Talmud.

And what do they find in that Talmud?  The fine tradition of Jewish debate.  One the one hand.  And on the other hand.  All living, side by side, in respectful and loving argument.  Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayim.  Because, in the words of Talmud, “both these and these are words of the God of Life.”[1]

This is the time of year for teshuvah.  For turning.  We turn back to the God of Life, turn back to those we love.  Sometimes it’s a person we regret ignoring.  Sometimes it’s a country we regret ignoring.  Sometimes we turn back to each other, to talk about a country we both love.

We can’t solve anything tonight.  But we can resolve, tonight, to start being open with each other — and, even more importantly, kind with each other — when we have these conversations.  Knowing this is hard.  Knowing it’s complicated.

Knowing that a community of love shows that love by making space for that complexity and complication.  Trusting that, if we do, the third rail might just become a third way.  A way forward.

In 1949, the chief rabbis of Israel, Yitzhak Halevi Herzog and Ben-Zion Uziel, composed a prayer for the state of Israel.  (On the other hand — of course — some say it was composed for them by future Nobel laureate SY Agnon.)

Regardless, the prayer as written is not triumphalist or chauvinistic.  Hagen aleha be'evrat chasdecha, it asks God.  “Guard Israel with chesed.”  Mercy.  Ufros aleha sukkat shelomecha.  “Spread over it a sukkah of shalom.”  Peace.  Ve'takneim be'eitza tovah.  “Heal its leaders with guidelines for tovah.”  Goodness.

In this New Year, may we learn how to speak — to each other — about Israel.  Of its achievements and its challenges.  Of our dreams and fears.  For chesed and shalom and tovah.  For mercy and peace and goodness.  For our sake.   For the sake of our people.  For the sake of our home — mine and yours.


[1] Talmud, Eruvin 13b

Tue, May 30 2023 10 Sivan 5783