Some Thoughts on Israel

This a text version of a talk I gave after Shabbat services on 3/19/16, part of on ongoing series of speakers reflecting on their relationship with Israel –

Thinking about how to speak about Israel, and its importance in my life and my rabbinate, I realized that it isn’t one Israel I have a relationship with, but rather 3 Israels, each in a way related to a distinct period of my life. So I’ll spend a few minutes with you this afternoon thinking about each of those Israels, and I hope in the course of doing that you’ll be able to have some sense of my relationship with Israel, how that informs my rabbinate and brings meaning to my life.

The first Israel is what I call the ideal Israel, and the period of my life I connect with that Israel is my childhood. I was born in 1964, and really came of age in the 70s, the decade in which I attended Hebrew school and had my bar mitzvah. Israel was an important part of my Jewish education, both in Hebrew school and in confirmation classes (yes I continued my Jewish education after bar mitzvah!), and the Israel I was introduced to during that time was ideal, a heroic and almost mythic state. It was an Israel that could make crops grow in the desert. It was an Israel that was a tiny nation with few people, but that could somehow, through superior intelligence, resilience, and determination defeat more powerful and numerous enemies. And it was an Israel that occupied a moral high ground, that existed in an unimpeachable state of goodness and ethical clarity that no other nation existed in. The Israel I met growing up achieved the impossible, lived to a higher standard, was a David to the world’s Goliaths, and of course the reason Israel did all of this was that it was a Jewish state.

That Israel – the mythic Israel – in my mind was formed by particular experiences. I remember meeting in Hebrew school an older man who had survived the Holocaust and moved to Israel after the war. I was an impressionable 11 or 12 year old, and the harrowing stories the man told of train rides and concentration camps have stayed with me to this day, but what I most vividly remember was that at one point he pulled a large knife out of his belt, and he showed us it had the IDF logo, and he told us that Israel meant that Jews will never be sacrificed again. I also remember, like many of you, watching in real time the events of the 72 Olympics, the pride I felt watching a Jew, Mark Spitz, setting a record for most gold medals won in a single Olympics, but also the horror, confusion, and fear that I felt when 11 Israeli athletes at those games were murdered by Palestinian terrorists. And last, but certainly not least, I will never forget the feeling of sitting in shul on Yom Kippur in 1973, when our rabbi approached the pulpit and began to talk with us about the surprise invasion of Israel that began the Yom Kippur war, and the level of emotion in the room that day as we prayed for Israel’s safety and survival with all of our hearts and souls.

The Yom Kippur war, in a sense, proved Israel’s mythic narrative in my young eyes. Israel was tiny, surrounded by enemies, on the very verge of destruction, and yet somehow overcame all of the odds, in the end to emerge victorious, and even stronger than she had been before – Israel was unbreakable, favored by God, based on Jewish morals and values, and really was, in my young eyes, perfect – a perfect land, with a perfect people, with a perfect story, and a perfect ending. It was ideal.

Let me shift now to the second Israel I have a relationship with, and that is what I call the real Israel. This Israel I got to know as a young man, as I married, got more interested in Jewish life, and Israel itself, and ultimately entered rabbinical school. This Israel didn’t fit the mythic narrative of the Israel of my childhood. It was first of all militarily powerful, with the best trained, best equipped, Army in the Middle East. This Israel was a nuclear power, the only in the Middle East, and one of only 9 nations in the world to possess nuclear weapons. This was an Israel that was vibrant, at the forefront of modern technology, innovative, progressive socially in many ways, with a strong economy, great scientists, world class universities, a vibrant culture, a commitment to fundamental human rights and freedoms. This was an Israel that any Jew anywhere could be enormously proud of. But it also was an Israel that struggled with internal ethnic tensions, between S’fardim and Ashkanazim, between Russian Olim and Sabras, between secular Israelis and the Ultra-Orthodox. It was an Israel where an average Israeli with an average salary could not afford to buy a home. And most difficult of all, it was an Israel that struggled with a terrible and existentially threatening problem – the Palestinian population, growing rapidly, that it shared its small space with. And it is in dealing with the Palestinians where I believe Israel’s fundamental Jewish identity and moral fiber are most directly challenged. This is Israel’s dilemma today – can you be a Jewish state when you forcibly maintain control of a large non-Jewish population? Can you continue to occupy the moral high ground when you are locked in a struggle to the death which at times forces you to do things that may not be moral, or ethical, to survive? At what point do you abandon certain Jewish values, in order to survive, or in order to win?

This is the real Israel I have come to know. It is a place of nuance, of grey, and not of black and white. It is a place of much good, of incredible potential, of indescribable spirit, of unbelievable optimism. But it is also a place with deep conflicts, with significant problems, a place where mistakes are made, where not every decision is correct and not battle is won, where the military is strong, but fallible, where government leaders are great men and women, but where an Israeli Prime Minister can be assassinated by a fellow Jew, or where a former Prime Minister can go to jail, as Ehud Olmert did last month. This is the real Israel – a wonderful, almost miraculous place. But at the same time, in many ways, a place that is no better or worse than any other place.

But it is my place, because I am a Jew, and Israel is intrinsically connected to being Jewish and living a Jewish life. And that leads me to the third Israel in my life, the Israel I relate to not with my mind, not even with my heart, but with my soul, my neshama. This is the Israel I experience as a religiously observant Jew, as one who davens every day, who takes Shabbat and holidays seriously, who loves the study of our ancient and sacred texts, who lives his life according to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar. And when you put your tefilin on, or wrap yourself in a tallit, or open a volume of Talmud, or celebrate Shabbat, or sit down at a Passover seder, it feels different – in my soul – to do it in Israel than it does anywhere else in the world. Because Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people. Because Israel is the birthplace of Judaism and Jewish life. Because I know when I put my tallit and tefillin on in Israel it is something Jews were doing in Israel 3000 years ago, something you can’t say about the United States, or any other place for that matter.

This Israel I got to know only in my adult life, because to know this Israel you have to go there, you have to breath the air and walk on the dusty paths of the Galilee and the ancient cobbled stones of Tzefat and stand on the beach in Tel Aviv and hear the siren that begins Shabbat in Jerusalem. And the very first time I was in Israel I was 30 years old.

Since then I have been back many times, so many that I have lost track. I have had the great privilege of bringing hundreds of congregants to Israel over the last 18 years, so that they might form their own relationships with their own Israels, but always with the hope that they will emerge from their experience with the deep connection to Israel that I feel every day of my life.

My relationship with Israel will always be woven from the three threads I have described to you this afternoon – the ideal, the real, and the religious. The ideal Israel continues to inspire me, to remind me of the great possibility, and also the great hope and expectation that Jews everywhere attach to the Jewish homeland. The real Israel also inspires me, but at the same time challenges me and worries me. The religious Israel, that Israel that speaks to my soul, nourishes my religious life, keeping me connected to the great history of our people, so much of it lived in that land, and also to God.


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Filed under Beth El Congregation, clergy, Israel, Israeli-American relations, Jewish thought, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, the rabbinate, Uncategorized

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