Erev Roshanah 5763
Friends, let me cut to the chase this High Holidays. The work is so long and the day so short, and the news, gevalt! 9/11, suicide bombings, Enron, drought, floods, fire, Martha Stewart, the stock market, Iraq, Bin Laden, enough already! Maybe we should drown out these names with noisemakers. But this isn’t Purim, it is the High Holidays, also known as the Days of Awe. In this season of self-reflection and self-judgment, we will approach our traditional practice of heshbon hanefesh, the inventory of the soul, as never before.
We come to High Holidays with less optimism and hope than in past years. Our illusion of security and strength has disappeared, because America is no longer invincible. The country can no longer protect us. Every citizen on this planet could be dragged into a ghastly war. Being Jewish adds to the stress and the depression of the moment.
Tomorrow morning we will read the 27th Psalm, traditionally read every morning throughout the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. In it David passionately pleads, “Only one thing I ask, God, to live in your house forever.” Move over, David! We all want to take shelter.” Rabbis struggle with finding words for these times.
What am I going to tell you that you don’t already know? You don’t know that it is painful to be well-informed? That Israel is in a state of emergency? That being Jewish has new meaning? That it is impossible to live without hope? You all know that.
Two years ago, anti-Semitism felt like history. Now we understand our parents’ experience as Jews in America as we encounter anti-Israel sentiment from virtually all but the religious right. Here in Santa Fe the local paper has printed many letters that, at the least, are unfriendly towards Israel. Being Jewish is very complicated right now and some of us might even resent it.
Ironically, the one thing that might keep us hopeful these days is our tradition. If any people know about darkness and near-death experiences, it is the Jews. Being Jewish reminds me that being the most powerful isn’t necessarily a formula for success. We, who have always been the out-numbered, the eternally dying people, are still here while mighty places are only memory.
We can teach the world, trembling with fear of omnicide, world destruction, how to live with uncertainty and fear and still go on creating, loving, and living. We know that the world is a narrow bridge, and the only thing is not to be afraid. We also know that miracles occur: we crossed the Red Sea, we stood at Sinai, and we have lived to witness a miracle in our own time, the birth of the state of Israel.
I was raised to love this mythic place where I dropped coins into a blue box each week to plant trees there. Jews who looked like Paul Newman lived in a country where women served with men in an army that was powerful, egalitarian, and moral. 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 the J word was rarely expressed outside home or synagogue. Budding Zionists,we were proud of Israel’s history.
The late 19th century settlers were pioneers no less heroic than Davy Crockett. Jews, ground for centuries by poverty, illiteracy, and illness, began to dream of a country where Jews could be free to live as Jews. Not necessarily very religious, however. They believed more in God’s people than God. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda took his passion for Hebrew, a dead language, to Palestine in the 1880’s and heard people speaking Hebrew by the time he died in 1922.
The only surprise for the early settlers was that, upon arriving in Jaffa, they saw people. Before he arrived, Ben Yehuda wrote in his diary, “Who lives in Palestine?” Lots of people. Camel drivers, peddlers, and farmers who spoke Arabic crowded the docks. They had been living on this land side by side with a few Jews for centuries. Later he wrote that the moment left him feeling “like a stranger, the son of a foreign country and a foreign people. I have no political and civil rights her. I suddenly broke. Something like remorse rose in the depths of my soul…My feet stood on the holy ground, the land of my forefathers, and in my heart there was no joy…I did not embrace the rocks..I stood shocked. Dread! Dread!”
Other settlers understood that the Arab citizens of Palestine presented a political question that needed resolution, but little was done about it. Jews and Arabs lived side by side mostly peacefully for many years in this period of settlement.
The Holocaust changed the meaning of Israel for Jews. It made a convincing case for a Jewish homeland by teaching us that unlimited forced is available to aggressors. Jews concluded that is they wanted to survive, then they had to attain political and military power. Until this point in history, many Jews, especially in classic Reform communities in the South, were absolutely opposed to a Jewish state. They were Americans and if there were such a place, their hard-won trust as loyal citizens would be in jeopardy. And there were Jews who simply shunned nationalistic Zionism. But in the end, the Holocaust persuaded most Jews that in an imperfect world Israel was necessary.
And the moment it became a state, we were celebrated proudly, read Exodus, and felt better about our Jewishness. but the noble and glorious fantasy we held of a nation, pure and free, born out of the ashes of Holocaust was just that: a story that helped us to survive in the shadow of near annihilation a few years before.
We didn’t look at the price paid 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. Morality would be conditional and compromised, but its measure would be its ability to limit oppression and to bring justice.
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.”
Israel is not perfect, but it is not evil. Suicide bombers are evil. They kill not only people but the soul of a society. Settlements in the West Bank are wrong but they don’t kill innocent people. What they do, however, is challenge the morality of a country that has pledged itself to the Jewish principles of justice and mercy. We must preserve honor as well as lives. We must be the best we can be in upholding the life-affirming principles of our tradition. Barak’s go-for-broke offer didn’t win a peace but neither has Sharon’s fist.
And here we are in 2002 struggling with our feelings and relationship to Israel. Its creation is what Leonard Fein calls “the most audacious undertaking of the Jewish people in our time. No other component of Jewish life can compete with it for primacy. We are bound to see to its success.”
One inescapable reason why Israel is important for Jews everywhere in the world is that a Jewish state gives us refuge. We may pray to live in God’s house, but while on earth we need a safe place. Israel is our freedom and independence. Israel has made it possible for us to flourish in America as Jews. Israel makes what happened to Jews for two thousand years, most recently in the Holocaust, never happen again.
Israel deserves our support not only as a place of refuge but as a place of pride. It is a democracy with a free press, an independent judiciary, and a separation of military and civilian authority. It speaks a revived language, has created a new Jewish music, and has contributed to world science. It is also a good society that not only cares for its own. Jewish and Muslim doctors work side by side at Hadassah Hospital treating all its citizens. (Aoki)
Israeli natives are called sabras because they are hard on the outside and soft on the inside. God forbid that we forget what the nation was created for: to be a place where we were free to be Jews, who are a people committed to the repair of the world through justice and mercy.
Finally, Israel is part of every Jew’s life because it is living evidence of miracles and that is what keeps hope alive. Its national anthem is called HaTivah, The Hope. Jews are a hopeful people, hopeful for prosperity, fecundity, and peace. We have always trusted that God will be kind and grant us such a life. This is our faith. The only irredeemable sin is despair. We are used to hoping; sometimes it is all we had to keep us going. We also know that if we want God’s lovingkindness, we must offer it to our neighbor as well.
We can be pro-Palestinian as well as pro-Israeli. We can offer prayers of well-being for the innocent victims and citizens on both sides whose lives have been devastated by the war. Hillel said it best: if I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, who am I? And, if not now, when?
The last question implies action. “What can we do?” First, we have to keep faith, as our ancestors did, that the dark night will end. Our history is both terrifying reassuring. Second, we need to know what is going on, even if it ruins our breakfast. We need to bear witness and be informed. The Jerusalem Report and HaAretz is on the Internet. They are both in English and give a picture of what life is like in Israel these days that no American paper offers.
We should visit Israel as a statement that we are unafraid. We can offer hope to those who live with the “situation” every day by letting them look in our eyes to see our caring and support. Maybe a few of us will take a trip this Passover. For those of you who don’t know the country first-hand, this is a way to establish relationship and understand what is actually going on and who it is happening to.
Until you can go, you can support the economy by buying Israeli. Our web site lists ways to buy Israeli on the internet. It not only will bring money into Israel but it helps keep small people, like the guys who make yarmulkes, in business.
Finally, pray daily for the peace of Jerusalem. Oseh shalom bimromav… May the One who makes peace in heaven make peace in Israel and all the world. And speedily in our days.