Category Archives: Israel

Goodness in the Wilderness

This is a text version of my sermon from this past Shabbat, 5/18/18 –

     We began reading this morning the fourth book of the Torah, called in Hebrew Bamidbar, and in English the Book of Numbers.  The book is primarily concerned with the wanderings of the Israelites through the wilderness in the course of their forty year journey to the Promised Land.  By and large it does not paint a pretty picture.  The Israelites are, to use a technical term, ‘kvetchy.’  They complain frequently to Moses, about just about everything, from the difficulty of the journey, to the quality of the food, to the qualifications of Moses to be their leader.  That complaining is a theme that runs throughout the entire book.

     And the brief snippets of narrative that the Book of Numbers offers are no better, and in fact might even be worse.  It is in Numbers where we find the disastrous episode of the quail, where God gets so angry at the people for not being satisfied with manna that God gives them so much quail to eat that they all become sick.  It is also in Numbers where we will read about the rebellion of Korah, a communal agitator who challenges the leadership of Moses.  And Numbers contains the infamous episode of the spies, who go to scout out the land, bring a bad report back to the people, and cause God to decide that none of the Israelites who left Egypt will ever get to see the Promised Land.  Or if you want to read about a family squabble you can look at Numbers 12, which describes Aaron and Miriam challenging the authority of their brother Moses, and then as punishment Miriam’s public shaming.  Last but not least it is in Numbers where Moses will strike the rock, and will be forbidden by God to enter the Promised Land.

     Not a pretty picture, by any means.

     And I’ve always wondered, wasn’t there anything good going on when the Israelites were wandering for all those long years?  If you think about it, there must have been!  It was forty years!  There must have been weddings.  And after the weddings, babies were born.  Friendships were formed.  I am sure there were countless acts of gemilut hasadim, of loving kindness, of one person helping another.  I imagine there were many sacred moments, celebrations of holidays, brises, and probably there were people who were gravely ill, and recovered, and their family felt tremendous gratitude.  There must have been hundreds and hundreds of good things that happened to the people as they wandered towards the Promised Land, but the Torah doesn’t describe any of it.

     On the one hand, I understand.  In any dramatic narrative you have to have tension.  That is what is interesting.  That is what catches people’s attention.  Imagine if you went to a movie, and the plot was as follows:  two people are married, they have two children, they get up each morning and go to work, they are successful in their jobs, they come home each night, have dinner as a family, the kids tell the parents they are getting straight ‘As’ in school, the parents put the children to bed, watch an episode of a Netflix show, and then get into bed themselves, kissing each other good night before they fall asleep. Who would watch that?  It would be boring!

     But still, reading through the Book of Numbers, you can’t help thinking you’d like a little bit of that ‘boring.’  It can feel like an unrelenting tale of woe and misfortune, as if nothing good ever happens, or ever will.  As if the only thing the people know how to do is complain.  As if there is no goodness at work in the community, no good people going about their day to day lives and doing the best they can to live with kindness, compassion and mercy.

     If you think about it, it is not unlike the way Israel is often portrayed in the news media and the international community.  It has been a difficult week for Israel.  I am sure almost everyone in the room is aware of the terrible situation at the Gaza border crossing earlier in the week, and if you pay any attention to the news you know that some 60 Palestinians were killed, and many others wounded, as they demonstrated and attempted to break through the border fence.  

     At this point there have been thousands upon thousands of words written about what happened.  Much of the debate tends to fall along political lines, between left and right, the left tending to blame Israel for what happened, the right tending to blame the Palestinians, particularly Hamas.  We know for certain that there were Hamas fighters at the border, and we know that Hamas incites violence, and that it has a stated goal of destroying the State of Israel.  That we know.  

     We also know that no Jew who cherishes the values of our tradition feels proud of what happened at that border this week.  There has been tremendous angst, both in Israel, and in the Jewish community abroad, about the loss of life on the Palestinian side, and this is something we should be proud of!  That we value life that highly, even the lives of those opposed to us, even the lives of those whose stated goal is to destroy Israel, that we feel guilty, and we worry, and we wonder if something could have been done differently so that fewer lives would have been lost.  

     This is not to say that Israel is perfect.  There is no perfect country in the world.  The United States is not perfect.  Israel also is not perfect.  But Israel is not all bad, the way it is all too often painted in the news.  Sometimes you can read the news about Israel and it is like reading the book of Numbers.  All that you find are descriptions of the tragedies and the deaths and the condemnations and the UN votes.  One grim narrative after another after another.  That is the Book of Numbers.  

     So sometimes, and maybe particularly when Israel has had a difficult week, we need to remember what goodness has come into the world because Israel has existed for 70 years.  We should remember that Israel is the sole democracy in the Middle East where equal rights for men and women are upheld, where freedom of the press is respected, and where religious diversity is allowed.  We need to remember that Israel is a nation of learning with great universities, libraries, and museums.  Since Israel’s founding 10 Nobel prizes have been awarded to Israeli scientists, more per capita than any other country in the world.  Their discoveries have been shared with every nation, and the entire world has benefitted from them.  This week it might be good to remember  that Israel is a country with state of the art medical facilities where Jew or Arab, Christian or Muslim is cared for.  We should remember that Israeli agricultural innovations are used all over the world, from South Africa to Columbia to Nigeria to India, and help feed thousands and thousands of people.  Even though we ask you to turn your phones off in shul, we should remember that there are cell phone and computer technologies that are relied on across the globe that were created in Israel.  And we should recall – in a week that has been hard for Israel – that the first ingestible video camera was invented there, that other medical technologies, invented in Israel, are used all over the world, and are saving lives every day.

     Israel is not perfect, that is true.  And it has been a hard week.  That is also true.  But Israel and her people are constantly striving to do better, to be better, and to make the world itself a better place.  May they continue to strive for those goals, and for the greatest goal of all, peace, in the years ahead – 

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Bible, Israel, preaching, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, sermon, Uncategorized

Adding Seats to the Table

This a text version of my sermon on Shabbat (4/22/18) –

     This past Wednesday evening, when many people were at Beth T’filoh, at the community celebration for Israel’s 70th birthday – which I heard was terrific – I climbed into my car and drove downtown to the Hopkins Hillel building, where I met with the chairs of the Johns Hopkins J Street U organization.  J Street U, as you may or may not know, is the college student branch of J Street, a DC based lobbying group that defines itself as pro-Israel, and pro-peace.  It is without question left of center politically, and so recently has often clashed with the Netanyahu administration, which is decidedly right of center.  J Street also focuses on the importance of a two state solution in terms of any ultimate peace deal with the Palestinians.

     The students I met with – one young man, one young woman – are bright, thoughtful, energetic, and deeply invested in their own Jewish identity, and deeply invested in the future of the State of Israel.  They worry that decisions that Israel is making today may have long term negative repercussions for the Jewish state.  In their work on campus they raise awareness about those issues – an example would be Israel’s building of settlements over the green line – which they argue will make it more difficult to disentangle the Israelis and Palestinians and to implement the idea of two states for two peoples.  

     Now you may or may not agree with their politics – I suspect many of you don’t.  But what I would ask you to consider this morning is whether those students have the right to express their views about Israel.  Can we be comfortable, as a Jewish community, when critical ideas about Israel enter the communal conversation?  Are we willing to listen to those ideas, to consider them, to respond thoughtfully to them?  Or has our community entered a space where we will not tolerate views on Israel that we don’t agree with?

     I personally hope we have not entered that kind of space, which is one of the reasons I went to meet with the Hopkins J Street U students.  I wanted them to know that someone who represents the community – a rabbi, and a rabbi from a large synagogue at that – would agree to spend time with them, would listen to their concerns, and would engage in thoughtful dialogue with them, even if I didn’t necessarily agree with everything they said or every view they hold.  The problem is this – if the community refuses to engage with young people like this, then we are shutting the door on young Jews who care about Israel, who are ready to work, to be active participants in the communal life, and once the door is shut we will lose their talent, their energy, and their love for the Jewish state.  And it is hard for me to understand how that would be good for anyone.

     It seems to me there are two challenges.  The first is we have to let young people like that know they are welcome at the communal table.  They have to feel safe in expressing their views, they have to be treated with the same respect as anyone else and not automatically and immediately shouted down every time they say something.  The double Torah portion that we read from this morning, Tazria Metzora, is filled with bizarre details about skin diseases and ritual purity and impurity that to us as modern people are extremely difficult to relate to, to say the least.  But at the heart of the double portion is one central concern – how can we bring people back into the community?  And that is the question we need to ask about these young people.  How can we let these young people know they are a valued part of the community, and that their views will be respected in the communal conversation about Israel?  That is challenge number one.

     Challenge number two has to do with a generational divide in terms of how the community understands Israel.  By and large folks who are in the 50s, 60s, and up still see Israel under what I would call the old mythology.  That is to say that Israel is a tiny country, that it is weak, that it is continually existentially threatened, and that it is continually overcoming enormous odds just to exist on a day to day basis.  And if you remember, as some of you here today do, when Israel was founded 70 years ago, if you remember the ’67 war, or the YK war in ’73, that mythology is probably an important part of the way you understand the state and relate emotionally to Israel.

     But many younger Jews today – Jews in the 40s, 30s, and 20s – don’t subscribe to that mythology.  They have lived their entire lives without Israel being in a war.  They know that Israel is strong economically and militarily, and they know Israel as the start up nation, a tech savvy, progressive, forward thinking country.  They don’t see Israel as weak, they don’t see Israel as existentially threatened, they don’t see Israel as struggling to survive on a day to day basis.  Their mythology is that Israel is a strong, established nation, now 70 years into its journey, powerful and secure and in charge of its own destiny.  

     And I would say in the course of the communal conversation about Israel both of those mythologies have to be recognized.  The young people are right – Israel is strong and secure and powerful and in charge of its own fate.  Just last month US News and World Report ranked the most powerful countries in the world, using a formula based on GDP, population, average salary, and military strength.  Here are the top 8 countries on that list – you may guess #1 – the US.  2?  Russia.  3 – China, 4 – Germany, 5 – the UK, 6 – France, 7 – Japan, and the 8th country on the list of most powerful nations in the world?  Israel!  8th in the world!  70 years into its history that is a remarkable, astonishing, incredible accomplishment.  With a GDP of 318 billion dollars, with a total population of 8.5 million people, with one of the world’s most powerful militaries, with an average citizen’s salary at around 35K per year, Israel is a true world power.  The young people are right.

     On the other hand, the older folks have a leg to stand on too.  There is truth to the old mythology.  Israel lives in a tough neighborhood to say the least.  With Iran and Syria and Lebanon, with an active Hezbollah on its borders, Israel’s sense of security is fragile, and without question Israel has to constantly be on its guard.  And when you take into account the growing Palestinian population, and the constant threat of terror attacks in Israel proper, Israel is facing challenges on a day to day basis that those of us who live in the US can barely get our heads around.  

     And I would argue that for us to be able to have a productive and meaningful communal conversation about Israel we have to take into account both the old and the new.  Talk bout the full picture, not just one side.  Israel is strong, powerful, established, but also at times threatened, and constantly facing danger and hostility from its neighbors.  And to have that full conversation – to acknowledge all that Israel is, and all of the challenges that she faces – we need everyone around the table.  Even – and maybe most importantly  – those with whom we don’t agree.  So lets open the doors as wide as we can – and with respect for one another – continue the conversation.

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Capital Ideas

Following the news this week about Donald Trump’s announcement that the US will formally recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital I am reminded of an old story about a Jewish court presided over by a wise Rav who can see all sides of an issue.  After one side presents its case to the Rav he proclaims ‘you’re right!’  The second side then presents its view of the case, in direct opposition to their opponent’s.  After carefully listening, the Rav proclaims ‘you’re right!’  A second member of the court leans forward, saying ‘But Rav, they can’t both be right.’  At which point the Rav exclaims ‘You’re right too!’

So it is with Israel, Jerusalem its capital, the Palestinians, the (largely moribund) Peace Process and the way these issues are viewed by the right (in a political sense) and the left.  Both sides are a bit right (in the sense of being correct!), and both a bit wrong.

First the left.  The left is correct in that Trump’s move leaves Israel more isolated internationally, and potentially more exposed to violence internally.  En masse the western nations Israel would like to have a good relationship with have sharply criticized this week’s announcement, to include Great Britain, France, and Germany.  The left is also correct in that they continue to wrestle with the moral compromises required to maintain control of the Palestinian population in the West Bank (now nearly 3 million strong).  And they are right when they say that the continued buildup of settlements over the green line is making it harder and harder to one day separate the two peoples.

But they are also wrong.  It no longer makes sense to say that this declaration will destroy the Peace Process.  There is effectively no Peace Process at this point, and although you can point to the Netanyahu administration to explain this, the truth is the Palestinian leadership is just as much to blame, if not more so.  Besides, as many on the right have pointed out, the US refrained from making this change for decades, and it never helped to move along peace negotiations.  A better message from the left would have been ‘Yes of course Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, and we are grateful the US has formally recognized this.  But we also want to remind everyone that if Israel is ever going to have a chance at peace with the Palestinians we have to be prepared to accept a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.’  The fact that the left is unable to say this is an illustration of how ideologically inflexible the lines have become, and of how difficult it is for people to view these issues with a sense of complexity and nuance.

The right, for its part, is also correct and incorrect in its reaction to Trump’s announcement.  They are of course correct in stating the obvious – Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, and that is not going to change.  Everyone knows that, even the Palestinians, so why not just come out and state the obvious?  They are also correct in pointing out that the Palestinians have been poor peace partners, never wasting an opportunity to waste an opportunity.   Last (but certainly not least) they are right when they remind us that Israel is commonly held to higher standards and expectations by the international community than just about any other country on the world scene.  All true.

But the right is wrong as well.  They are conveniently ignoring the real problem, which is the rapidly growing Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza.  Trump’s statement does nothing to help Israel cope with that existentially threatening elephant in the room.  It certainly does not advance the idea of peace in any way, and it also in all likelihood removes the US as a trusted broker in any future negotiations that might take place.  If you have a US embassy in Jerusalem surrounded by one large territory that is controlled by Israel but is majority Palestinian in terms of its population, that is not a good place to be.  And yet it sometimes seems that Bibi and his right leaning cabinet are determined to take that path.

At the end of the day Jewish groups both right and left have almost overwhelmingly embraced Trump’s statement, as they should.  How can we reject something we have waited so long to hear?  But it is difficult to swallow so much snake oil just to get to the sweet taste at the bottom of the bottle.

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To the End of the Land

‘To the End of the Land’ is the English language title of David Grossman’s 2008 best selling novel about Israel, family, love, war, hate, fear, loss, and the sacred quality of land.  This book is no beach read.  Weighing in at close to 700 pages, it asks the reader to wrestle with dark and difficult themes and challenging questions, and it does not offer easy answers or happy endings.  Having just finished the book last night, I find its narrative and even more so its characters haunting me this morning.  There is nothing else I have read that so truly captures the modern Israeli experience, namely the challenge of living with hope and love under the constant shadow of the knowledge that life altering tragedy is a moment away.  In Grossman’s Israel, it is not a question of will tragedy strike, it is a question of when.

There is a deep sadness at the heart of the book’s narrative.  It stems from the bitter, unendurable, and yet necessary and seemingly eternal entanglement of the Israelis and Palestinians.  Like Jacob and his angelic antagonist in Genesis 32, the two sides both wrestle and embrace at the same time, pulling one another closer and closer, unable to disengage even when both are damaged in the process.  The difference between a strong hug and a smothering is only a matter of degree.  A fine line indeed.

And in that kind of world, with that kind of pressure, with that much at stake, both personally and nationally, how is it possible to maintain one’s moral equilibrium?  Is it possible for anything to stay pure and true, can anything – a people, a land, a sacred promise – escape corruption?  Even a child?  Perhaps particularly a child?  Or does life, by its very definition, require moral compromise.  And if so, where are the lines?  When does the compromise take you too far, so far that you can’t ever find your way back?

And so, ‘to the end of the land.’  To a place of no return, to a place where the land itself, or perhaps the meaning of the land, is no longer what it once was.  ‘Tiyyul’ in Israel is a powerful idea, to this very day.  It captures the idea that the land should be walked, experienced, slept on, lived in, worked.  And Grossman’s writing beautifully captures that Israeli sensibility with its vivid descriptions of the dusty dirt roads, of the spare and beautiful flowers that bloom in the arid wilderness, of the ancient mountains and biblical landscapes.  The ancient Israelites walked the land, and the modern Israelis are still at it, still absorbing its essence in the most physical way possible.  The land IS sacred, soaked in Jewish history, the place where Israelite kings ruled and Jewish scholars recreated their faith and Jewish soldiers fought for freedom and a Jewish nation was born anew after two thousand years.

At the same time, what the land demands is so high.  The loyalty and sacrifice, the difficulty and determination, the toughness and moral compromise.  The Hebrew title to Grossman’s novel is strikingly different from its English counterpart – אשה בורחת מבשורה – A Woman Flees from News.  The book’s protagonist, Ora, walks into the wilderness of Israel as a way of escaping from what might happen in the real world.  But in the end she must of course return.  The ideal, mythic land of Israel exists only in imagination and religious text.  It can be visited for a time, but the real Israel is where one’s day to day life must be lived.  And the real Israel is like any other place in this world.  It is both breathtakingly beautiful and filled with dust and debris, glorious and delicate, but at the same time dreary and difficult.  It can rip one’s heart away, and make one’s heart sing.  Grossman’s wonderful, poignant, powerful novel is exactly the same way.

 

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The Blacklist – Yom Kippur 5778

My phone started dinging with unusual frequency early in the morning of July 9th.  Each text or email came with a strange question:  ‘Is it you?’  After the 3rd or 4th text message and 5th or 6th email I decided I had better figure out what exactly was going on.  With one quick google search I discovered that Israel’s chief rabbinate had released a blacklist of rabbis – 160 names of rabbis not to be trusted.  And as my eyes scanned down that list, about half way through it, I saw my own name  – Rabbi Steven Schwartz.

Most of the rabbis whose names appeared on the list are from the US.  Many are Conservative rabbis, although there are Orthodox rabbis and Reform rabbis listed as well.  We received no notification, no communication from the Chief Rabbinate, and no explanation.  But best guess, after speaking with some of my colleagues, is that you made that list if you had people who had studied with you for conversion, and then after they became Jewish they made aliyah, they moved to Israel.  And if you wrote supporting documents for their aliyah process, you made the blacklist.

Now please don’t feel bad for me, if you were inclined to do so.  My feelings were not hurt, my ego, such as it is, not bruised.  The timing was ironic, because when the list was released I had just returned from Israel, where for 10 days I had done my best to give a group of Beth El travelers a sense of pride in and love for the Jewish homeland.  But even while we were there there were storms brewing and controversies swirling, all revolving around the question of how Israel, in a religious sense, Israel as a Jewish state, relates to the Jewish community outside of Israel, those of us who live in the Diaspora.

If you follow Jewish news you probably came across these issues during the summer.  There have been two primary points of contention.  The first has to do with access to Judaism’s most sacred site, the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.  If you’ve ever been to the Kotel you know it is run like an Orthodox synagogue – there is a men’s section of the Wall, and a women’s section.  The sections are divided by a mechitza.  It is clear that if you are a Conservative or Reform or Reconstructionist Jew that your brand of Judaism is not looked upon kindly there.  And some of you who have traveled with me and Dr. Bor to Israel may remember how uncomfortable we felt when trying to have a Beth El service, not even at the wall, but in the general vicinity, usually at the back of the plaza.

Almost two years ago a compromise was negotiated with the Netanyahu administration that was supposed to resolve this tension.  The plan was to give Reform and Conservative Jews access to the wall’s southern section, where they would be able to have egalitarian services, with women and men participating fully and praying together.  But the government never implemented the agreement, giving one excuse after another, finally announcing this summer that the agreement would be indefinitely shelved.  And the message to the Diaspora community really was if you are a Conservative or Reform Jew your Judaism is not authentic, and you do not have the same Jewish rights in Israel, the Jewish homeland, as Orthodox Jews.  Controversy #1.

Controversy number 2, which connects to my being black listed, revolves around the status of Jews by Choice, who have converted in the Diaspora.  Since the establishment of the state 70 years ago in 1948, conversion status worked as follows – if someone converted under non-Orthodox auspices, they were considered to be Jewish by the state of Israel and they were allowed to make aliyah as a Jew under the Law of Return.  But just over the last number of months there has been legislation introduced in the Knesset that would make only Orthodox conversions approved by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate to be considered valid.  It is another message sent – from the Israeli government – that non Orthodox Judaism, in their eyes, is not authentic.

This past summer the Conservative and Reform communities finally felt like they had had enough.  You may or may not know but you should that our President Denise Franz and I signed on to a letter a few weeks ago that was sent from the Conservative Movement to PM Netanyahu.  It was signed by 600 Conservative rabbis and the presidents of almost 400 conservative synagogues around the country.  In the strongest possible terms the letter expressed the deep disappointment we feel communally with the Netanyahu administration’s positions on these issues. (the text of the letter is easy to find online if you want to read it)

To this point there has been no movement from the Netanyahu administration, and no response that I know of to the letter or the points it raises.  And that lack of response, particularly at this time of year, when Judaism urges us to reach out to God and to each other, to admit oversights and promise to do better, is both hurtful and telling.  It is a rejection of our Judaism, and our Jewish way of life.

I don’t have to tell you that we are living in a world today that feels both dark and dangerous.  With violence, and terrorism, and mass migration, and a threat of nuclear war that we have not felt since I was in elementary school;  with challenges of modernization, and the feeling that technology is taking over our lives, and the recent natural disasters, and the growing threat of climate change – the list could go on and on and on.  To say the least, these are unsettled and troubled times.

And that is the general world!  Think for a moment about the Jewish world.  We have plenty of our own tzuras!  In Israel the unresolved situation with the Palestinians and the continuing occupation divides the country internally between left and right.  The left recognizes that the occupation cannot continue because A) it is morally compromising and B) it alienates the rest of the world. But the left has a problem because it doesn’t know if a full withdrawal from the West Bank will finally result in peace or if it will locate Hamas rockets 10 miles from Ben Gurion airport.  The right in Israel also has its problems.  It believes that the Israeli claim to Judea and Samaria is God given, even Messianic, and withdrawal is impossible. Yet it understands that something has to be done about the Palestinians, and also that making a single state will not preserve Israel’s Jewish identity in the long term.  That is internally.  And externally, Israel lives in one of the most challenging, unstable, and dangerous neighborhoods in the world, and has to share its backyard with Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon.  Israel can never seem to catch a break, and never seems to have an easy year.

But we Jews who live in the Diaspora haven’t had it much better this year.  I imagine many of us are still deeply disturbed by the events that took place in Charlottesville this summer, when Nazis and white supremacists marched in the streets of an American city chanting Nazi slogans and waving flags with swastikas.  Our brothers and sisters in Europe have their own concerns, with the left in England revisiting classic anti-Semitic tropes, and the right in Germany electing neo-Nazis to sit in the German parliament.  %13 in last week’s elections!

And in this kind of world, in this kind of year, do Jews have to spend their time telling other Jews they don’t practice Judaism the right way, that they aren’t authentically Jewish, they aren’t observant enough?  Does the Chief Rabbinate have to release blacklists of rabbis?  Does the government of Israel have to renege on its agreements with the liberal Jewish community, does it have to alienate Jews at a time when if anything Jews should becoming together?  I understand that we all have a tendency to pass judgement on others. That is one of the reasons why YK exits!  And in the Jewish community we seem to have a particular talent for judging others.  But don’t we Jews have other things to worry about, aside from judging each other?

The message of Yom Kippur is to look inwards, and to judge oneself, and to leave the judging of others to God.  In ancient times, when the High Priest went into the inner precincts of the Temple, to pray for a good year, he prayed for all Jews.  He didn’t say, ‘I am going to pray for the Jews of Beth El, and not Chizuk Amuno.’   And if we wake up in the morning, and somehow the Temple has miraculously been rebuilt over night, and a High Priest found, his prayer in that Temple would also be for ALL Jews – in Israel, and in the Diaspora, Orthodox and Conservative and Reform and Reconstructionist.

In its introduction to the Avoda service, our mahzor quotes the teaching of a Hasidic master.  “Wherever a person stands to lift up eyes to heaven, that place is a Holy of Holies. Every human being created by God in God’s own image is a High Priest. Each day of a person’s life is the Day of Atonement. Each one of us can face God with the language of the heart. Each one of us can be forgiven. Each one of us can achieve atonement and be made pure in the eyes of God.”

That is a message that I hope and pray the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Netanyahu administration will take to heart.  But the truth is it is a message all of us need to hear and take to heart, in Israel and in the Diaspora.  It affirms every person and every place as part of God’s creation. That each of us despite our diversity, in age, in location, in language, in observance, in worldly goods can find God’s love and support as we journey through life.

We all pray in the same words on the HHDs, the pious and those less so. בספר חיים…וכל עמך בית ישראל. May we and the entire House of Israel be called to mind and inscribed for life, blessing, sustenance, and peace in the Book of Life.

May that be God’s wish, and the wish of all Jewish people, one for another, in this new year –

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Leadership and Scholarship

On a quiet street in Tel Aviv Yaffo, the area where the ancient city of Jaffa blends into the modern metropolis of Tel Aviv, you can find a quiet and unassuming house built in the early 30s.  It is easy to walk right by it without having any idea that it is today a museum, with no entry fee by the way, the first and second floors the place where David Ben Gurion and his family lived during the events of the founding of the State of Israel.  You may know that Ben Gurion later settled in the Negev, in Sde Boker, but the family kept the Tel Aviv home, and used it off and on for decades, even into the 70s.

There are two things that are striking about the home.  The first is how austere it is.  We are used to our presidents being surrounded by opulence, the White House is expensively decorated, our leaders wear expensive suits and ties, they look like men of wealth and largely live in the style of the rich and famous.  Ben Gurion’s uniform of choice was a short sleeve khaki shirt, and the home he lived in was sparsely furnished, just the basics, with worn furniture, a small kitchen, old pots and pans, almost as if to say material things are not important.

The only indulgence in the home can be found on the second floor, which is where Ben Gurion spent most of his time.  There are 5 rooms on the second floor.  One of them is a small bedroom, with an old bedside table with a lamp.  But the other four rooms are filled with shelves, and the shelves are filled with books.  There are volumes in various languages – Latin and Greek, English, French and German, even Turkish, and of course Hebrew.  All told there are some 20,000 volumes in those four rooms.  Ben Gurion spent any spare time that he had reading and writing, studying the contents of his library, thinking about the great minds and the great works of literature, from antiquity to the modern day.  He was a statesman, a leader, a politician – but he was also a scholar, and his world view was formed through study and the world of the mind.

Ben Gurion knew that Jewish tradition had long demanded scholarship from its leaders.  The two greatest biblical kings, David and his son Solomon, are both understood in the tradition as being authors.  King David wrote?  The Book of Psalms.  And how about King Solomon?  According to tradition, Solomon wrote three biblical books – as a young man, he wrote the Song of Songs, the Bible’s great love poem.  In his middle age Solomon wrote the book of Proverbs, filling it with witty sayings and wise observations about the world.  And then in his old age he wrote the book of Kohelet, called in English Ecclesiastes, with its world weary observations about the temporal quality of life.

This idea that the king should also be a scholar is found in the Torah itself, and comes from this week’s portion, called Shoftim.  There is an extended passage at the end of the 17th chapter of Deuteronomy that describes what was expected of the ancient Israelite kings.  The passage concludes with the following verses:  “When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of the Torah written for him by the Levitical Priests.  Let it remain with him and let him read it every day of his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, and to observe faithfully every word of this Torah and its laws.  In this way he will not act arrogantly against his fellows, nor deviate from this Teaching…”  (Deuteronomy 17: 18-20)

I see in the passage two ideas that are instructive in terms of how we hope our leaders will conduct themselves.  The first is the Torah clearly believes that a necessary quality for successful leadership is humility.  The text says it quite plainly – the king needs to study so that he will not act arrogantly against his fellows.  A leader who thinks he or she always knows best is not a leader.  True leaders understand that they might be wrong – they doubt, they question, they agonize over decisions.  But even more importantly, true leaders know on a fundamental level that they are no better than anyone else.  When they begin to think that they always know best, when they begin to believe that they have some kind of exalted status, that they are intrinsically deserving of their leadership role, they will lose the ability to properly fulfill that role.  So the Torah reminds us that leaders must maintain a sense of perspective, and that humility is a necessary ingredient for true leadership.

The second thing is that the Torah expects that the king will be a scholar.  A leader must also be a learner – a studier, a digester of information, a thinker, a cogitator, a reader.  The biblical kings had their prophets – Saul had his Samuel, David had his Nathan, Hezekiah had his Isaiah.  And modern heads of state must have their advisors, experts on the wide and varied subjects that cross the leaders desk.  But according to the Torah the leader is not permitted to abdicate the tasks of studying, reading, thinking, and even writing.  That is precisely why in this country we create presidential libraries to honor a president’s service.  You may remember that Winston Churchill won a Nobel Prize for literature in 1953.  And that is why David Ben Gurion’s home in Tel Aviv contains those 20,000 volumes.  He knew that true leaders have to learn, and read, and study, they have to familiarize themselves with the world of ideas, with the great thinkers of the ages.  They have to have a sense of the past, of where we’ve come from, they need to be students of history, and they also have to have a sense of where we are today, of the problems and challenges of our time.  And there is no shortcut  – the only way you do it is by taking the books off the shelf, and delving into the ideas with your own mind.

It is clear from the Torah’s text that ancient Israelite culture felt intensely ambiguous about the institution of the monarchy.  On the one hand the text acknowledges the need for centralized power, and understands that a strong king can unite the people and give them a sense of national identity.  On the other hand the Torah knows all too well that a king without the proper checks and balances can become dangerous and even deadly.  After all, our ancestors were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, a king who had ultimate power.

Of course we know the end of the story.  The monarchy comes into existence, and kings sit on the throne of ancient Israel for generations.  The most successful of those kings – the ones who are remembered as beloved, both by God and the people, are those who follow the advice in this morning’s portion – והיתה עמו – the book will be always with him – וקרא בו כל ימיי חייו – and he will read from it all the days of his life – in order to learn to fear the Lord his God, observing all of the laws of this Torah.

We should hope and pray for the same sense of humility and depth of understanding in our own leaders.  May they realize the need for it so we see it soon –

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Limiting God

There has been a bit of an uproar (maybe more than a bit) in the worldwide Jewish community over the Netanyahu administration’s recent decision to freeze plans to establish a mixed prayer space near the Western Wall (the Kotel) in Jerusalem.  Liberal Jewish groups have long argued that the sacred site belongs to all Jews, not just those from the Orthodox world, and so should be open to various styles of worship, to include men and women praying together, and women leading prayer and reading from the Torah.  A year and a half ago it seemed as if this long held goal was about be realized when an agreement was hammered out between Netanyahu’s government and  various Jewish groups.  Suspiciously (although perhaps not surprisingly) the agreement was never put into action, with various and sundry excuses offered as to why things were taking so long.  Then last week the announcement was made – the idea was being ‘shelved.’

Netanyahu could care less about the Wall as religious artifact and sacred site.  If anything, it signifies to him the sovereignty of the state.  But he is beholden to the Orthodox members of his governing coalition, and so, pressed to mollify them, he is allowing the Kotel to essentially be held hostage.  This political dynamic has been extensively analyzed over the last few days, and a quick Google search will turn up any number of articles describing it.

So I would like to focus for a moment on another issue, namely that by suggesting there is only one way to ‘do the Kotel’ the Orthodox community is in fact limiting God.  Essentially what they are saying is this:  God is all-knowing, all-powerful, the cosmic Creator of the entire universe, and yet God is also (you’ll please excuse the anthropomorphism) small minded.  That in all of God’s vast power and knowledge God can only accept one narrow path of human behavior in terms of being worshipped.

This is irrational.  It simply doesn’t make sense.  God, in all of God’s vast power, can only accept one way of worship?  Instead, doesn’t it make God greater to understand that God can accept many ways of worship?  That there are a variety of pathways that will ultimately lead to God?  Some are Jewish, some are not.  Even within Judaism, there are multiple pathways.  And if we stop to think about it, wouldn’t we imagine that God is ‘big’ enough to accept them all?

It is true, to a certain extent, and maybe even entirely, that God is inscrutable.  I don’t pretend to know God’s will, and I struggle to understand what God demands of me, of my actions,  of my day to day life.  But I do know that the God I am in relationship with is מי שאמר והיה העולם – the One Who spoke and the world came into being.  A vast force of power and mystery, open to all seekers.  From the 145th Psalm:  “God is near to all who call God, to all who call God in truth.”

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