Tag Archives: Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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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An Ambassador to Israel

This a text of my Shabbat sermon from 12/17/16 –

It has been interesting in the weeks since the presidential election to watch President Elect Trump fill the various cabinet and diplomatic posts that are required of a new administration.  And I have been waiting with particular interest to see who Mr. Trump would tap to be the US ambassador to Israel.  That question that was answered this week when he asked David Friedman, a bankruptcy lawyer from Long Island, and also the son of a Conservative rabbi, to fill that post.  Traditionally the ambassador doesn’t have any policy making power – instead, his or her role is to carry out the policies of the current US administration, while at the same time keeping an ear to the ground for what is happening in the host country.

That being said, the choice of ambassador is often seen as an indicator of where the current administration might be leaning in terms of how it intends to relate to the host country, in this case Israel, what policies it might hope to put into place, what strategies it intends to emphasize.  And if this is the case, it is worth spending a few minutes thinking about who the new ambassador is, and what his known views on Israel are.  And although David Friedman has never been a diplomat, he has for many years now been very involved in Israel and Israeli issues, and has written a series of columns for prominent Israeli papers about the peace process, the settlements, the West Bank, a two state solution – if there is a controversial political issue in Israel, particularly regarding Israeli – Palestinian relations, then David Friedman has written about it or spoken publicly about it.

What is immediately clear from even a cursory examination of his writing and public speaking is that he is a hard line Hawk, so much so that many of his positions bring him to the right of the Netanyahu government, considered already to be a Hawkish administration.  He believes in the idea of a ‘greater Israel,’ that there should be full Israeli sovereignty over the entire territory of David’s kingdom as described in the Bible.  He has helped over the years to fund the Israeli settler movement, establishing Jewish outposts and small villages in Palestinian areas, and he is on the record as saying it is within Israel’s rights to annex sections of the West Bank.  He has also publicly said that he does not believe in a two state solution, and he has demonstrated a particular talent for overblown rhetoric, recently publishing an article in which he called President Obama an anti-semite.  In that same article he wrote that Jews who insist on supporting positions on Israel that he views – David Friedman views – as radically to the left are worse than Kapos, the Jews who worked with the Nazis in WW II.

All of this to give you a taste of David Friedman, and you can see he is strongly opinionated, controversial, and also seems to have no tolerance for views which do not agree with his own.

Now again, the job of the ambassador is not to set policy, but rather to carry out the policies of the administration he or she serves.  The question is will the Trump administration adopt the same views of their ambassador?  Or to take the question one step further, is David Friedman’s appointment an indication that the administration is already adopting those views?

As we let that question settle into our minds, let me turn our attention for a moment to this morning’s Torah portion.  I know that the President elect is not a religious man, and does not read the Bible, but David Friedman is an Orthodox Jew, and I would guess first of all he is in shul this morning, and second of all is very well familiar with the narrative in this morning’s sedra, the story of the patriarch Jacob wrestling with a mysterious unknown attacker.  I am sure you are also familiar with the story, one of the best known in the entire Bible.  Jacob is returning to the land of Israel after a 20 year absence.  While away he has grown wealthy, become a husband and a father.  But he is afraid to come home because he knows he will have to confront his brother Esau, from whom he stole the blessing and the birthright two decades ago.  He knows that Esau is coming to meet him at the border, and he takes a series of precautions – dividing his possessions, his children, and his wives into different groups with the hope that if one group is attacked the other will survive.  And then Jacob does something curious – he waits, alone, in the dark, on the far side of the border.

It is at that point that Jacob is attacked by a mysterious ‘ish’ – the Hebrew for ‘man.’  The man seems to become an angel, but the text is very obscure, and commentators have for centuries debated about the identity of that ‘ish.’  Who was he, and what did he really want with Jacob?

Many answers have been given over the years, but the one that interests me this morning understands the mysterious man to actually be Esau, the brother that Jacob fears.  Let us imagine for a moment that it is indeed Esau who crosses the river under darkness, and attacks his brother.  This is the language the Torah uses to describe that moment – ויאבק איש עמו – the man wrestled with him.  It is a curious term to say the least – so much so that the only the time the word is used in the entire Bible – the whole Bible! – is in this story.  Why didn’t the man sneak up on him in the dark and attack him with a sword or knife?  Or shoot him with an arrow?  All of these are forms of combat the Bible was familiar with – so what is this business with the wrestling?

Here is one answer from the biblical scholar and commentator James Kugel – “In wrestling the limbs of the two antagonists become so entangled that one does not know for sure which belongs to whom.  Wrestling simultaneously seeks closeness to and control over.  The loser does not die or leave;  though he must acknowledge defeat, he remains present, even near, in the continuing embrace of the victor.”

Jacob and Esau wrestle in the dark because they have become so entwined, so entangled, they they cannot figure out a way to separate one from the other.  They know that even if one of them is victorious the victory will be only temporary.  The other will still be there, perhaps damaged, perhaps injured, but still standing, and will not be going away.  They may not trust each other, they may even hate each other, but they are compelled to come together, time and again, limbs intertwined, foreheads touching, muscles straining, with neither able to achieve a clear victory.

When you think about it that is not a bad description of the Israeli Palestinian conflict.  And it might be one that David Friedman, and by extension President Elect Trump, might want to spend some time mulling over.  There is no magic spell that will make the Palestinians somehow disappear in the darkness.  And there is no moral path to making them go away.   And the more settlements you build, the more entangled you will be with them.  That is the reality the next American ambassador to Israel will be facing, and the president elect’s administration will be dealing with.  Wishing otherwise will not make it go away.  So I hope they recognize that reality soon, and I wish them the very best of luck in dealing with one of the most difficult diplomatic dilemmas of modern times –

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One Upon a Time

sermon text from Shabbat services on 10/17/15

I want to first let you know this morning that our women’s group in Israel is doing fabulously well. If you’ve followed their escapades on FB at all then you have a sense of what they’ve been up – meeting Israeli women who are important leaders in their communities; repelling down the side of a cliff in Israel’s version of the Grand Canyon, called Mitzpeh Ramon; and spending a couple of days at one of Israeli’s most elegant spas in the Negev. The group is in high spirits, and although they have made some minor alterations to their itinerary, they are all grateful and proud to be in Israel, especially during this difficult time, by their presence supporting our brothers and sisters in the Jewish state, and affirming the connections between Jews that bind us together as a world wide community. This Shabbat they are in Jerusalem, and they’ll be back Wednesday, richer for the experience, and even more deeply connected to one another, to Israel, and to their Judaism.

In a sense at the center of that connection is the Torah itself, the sacred scroll that we take from the ark each week. It speaks to us of the history of our people, of our origins, of the aspiration that we’ve had for thousands of years to have a land of our own. Israel right now is 7 hours ahead of the US time wise, so it is about 6:30 in the evening there, and Shabbat is just ending. But the women’s group went to shul this morning, and when the Torah came out of the ark in whatever shul they were in they rose, just as we did here a few minutes ago. And the story they read from that far away Torah in Israel is the same one we read here, Parshat Noach, the famous story of Noah and the flood.

That is a story that I’ve long understood as a myth, a story placed in the Torah not because it describes real people and real events, but rather because it comes to teach us important ideas about the world God wants human beings to make, a world free from violence and hatred. We know the arc of the story well. (Pun intended) God comes to believe that the earth has become corrupt to the extent that it is no longer reparable, and God decides to destroy the earth, in essence throwing out the first try at creation for a second attempt. But God sees enough in Noah and his family to believe that they can form the new line of humanity, and God chooses them to survive the flood.

Noah builds the ark, loads it with his family and with the animals, all at God’s command. The waters of the flood come, the terrible rains, waters flooding up from the ground, the oceans and rivers expanding until the entire earth is covered with water. The flood lasts for how long? 40 days and nights! And then the waters begin to recede, and Noah emerges from the ark, with his family, with the animals, and they begin to repopulate the world. The story ends beautifully, with God establishing a covenant with Noah, and with God promising that never again will humanity be destroyed. And God even gives Noah an eternal sign that this promise will be fulfilled – what is it? The rainbow.

And I’ve always felt that the Noah story, with its pounding rain and flooding, with its ark and its animals marching two by two, with its rainbow ending, almost reads like some ancient fairly tale. We all remember fairly tales from our childhood, with their princes and princesses, with their kings and queens, with their dark forests and high castles of light. Almost all of the fairy tales my parents read to me when I was young began and ended in the same way – the first phrase, the classic fairly tale beginning, was – ‘once upon a time.’ And at the end of the fairy tale was another memorable phrase. What is it? And they lived happily ever after.

Those phrases would work well with the Noah story that we read this morning. Imagine the beginning of the story like this: Once upon a time there was a man named Noah, who lived in a far away place. One day God came to Noah and told him that a great flood was coming. And the story would go on from there. And then at the end of the story, after God made the covenant with Noah, after God promised to never again destroy the earth, after God placed the rainbow in the sky as an eternal symbol of that promise, the very last line of the narrative could so easily be ‘and they lived happily ever after.’

But if we wanted to use those fairy tale phrases we’d have one problem, which is this: this morning’s portion doesn’t end with the end of the Noah story. After God’s promise, after the covenant, after the rainbow, there is one more story in the portion. The story of the Tower of Babel. It is tacked on, just 9 short verses, but it serves as a cautionary tale. The earth cannot be fully healed. Human pride and arrogance, human jealousy, these things cannot be eliminated from the world, cannot be excised from human beings. And so God scatters humanity, giving each group a different place to live, a different language to speak, different goals to achieve – and with that one act God places into the world, perhaps forever, the suspicion and distrust that all too often mark human interaction. And so we cannot say, with this tale at least, that they lived happily ever after.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the Torah chooses this path. The Torah always seems to find a way to reflect human reality, the real human experience, and of course we all know that in real life, in the real world, there is no line at the end of every story proclaiming ‘they lived happily ever after.’ If anything we get to live happily for a time. But inevitably, in real life, challenges arise. Difficulties confront us. We have our share of happiness and sunshine, but also our share of sadness and doubt and darkness. That is true for every person who has ever lived. As someone once said, life is not a fairly tale.

And neither is the State of Israel. It is a great country, one of the greatest in the world today, but it is not a myth. It is a real land, with real people, beset with real challenges and dangers, challenges and dangers that have seemed daunting over the last weeks. If you know anything at all about Israelis, you know they are pragmatists, and at the very same time they are dreamers. They know that life in Israel can often be hard, that times like this when you feel afraid to walk in the street or to send your child to school will inevitably arise. And yet they walk in the streets. They send their children to school. They get up and go to work and drink coffee in the cafes and laugh and gather together for dinner. That is their pragmatism. They know from their experience that even in the hardest of times they can still live their lives with meaning.

But to be an Israeli is also to be a dreamer. To dream of a fertile land rising from the desert. To dream of a great nation where none existed 67 years ago. To dream of a time when לא ישא גוי אל גוי חרב ולא ילמדו עוד מלחמה – where nation shall not life up sword against nation, neither shall they make war any more. To dream of a world of peace. We’ve kept that dream alive for more than 2000 years. We will not let it die now. And with that dream will be hope, will be faith, will be strength and courage that a better and brighter day will soon arrive for all –

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Strangers in a Strange Land part 3 – Israel’s ‘National Unity’ Law

It is all connected. The fire set by Jewish extremists at the Yad b’Yad school where young Arabs and Jews studied together. The periodic arson attacks against various mosques within Israel. Even the killing of the Palestinian teenager this past summer. And yes, the proposed National Unity law. There is something fetid in the air, in the atmosphere, some combination of nationalism, racism, hatred, and without question fear – fear of the stranger.

What is the ‘national unity’ law? The truth is we don’t fully know at this point. Various versions are being proposed, negotiated, written and re-written. Defenders of the bill say it will create a legal shield for Israel, ensuring that the state will remain Jewish. But you have to wonder – this is the plan? This is the wisdom of Israel’s leadership, this the solution to Israel’s Palestinian problem? Really? Israel has backed itself into a corner where this is the only option? To pass legislation that would delegitimize any citizen of Israel who is not Jewish? Israel has always worked hard to balance its identity as a Jewish state and a democracy. A bill of this nature is a blow against Israel’s democratic values and identity, and would do little if anything at all to ensure Israel’s Jewish identity. In fact one could – and some are – arguing that this bill would diminish Israel’s Jewish identity because it so blatantly disregards core Jewish values like the fundamental idea that all human beings are created in the image of God, and are therefore deserving of equal respect and dignity.

But people are afraid. Afraid of the stranger in their midst. Who can blame them? You can’t feel safe waiting for a bus or a train. You can’t feel safe in your shul, during services, your t’fillin and tallit can not shield you, cannot protect you from harm. The psalmist tells us “you will not be afraid of the darkness, or the arrow that flies by day.” But there is a growing fear. And one natural reaction to fear is to strike out, even blindly. Not literally blindly, but without thought, without wisdom, without clear vision.

Of course the problem with that is when you strike out blindly, you never can be sure where you will wind up, what the consequences will be in the end. You swing with your fist, and then you open you eyes, not sure of where you are or how you got there. The unity law is a blind swing in the dark, born of frustration, of anger, of a need for revenge, and of fear.

Is there a better way? Another path? And if there is, who can find it? Again, from the psalmist, we wait for the answer to that question “like watchmen wait for the dawn.”


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Strangers in a Strange Land

What a provocative phrase! It comes from Exodus 2 (verse 22), and is Moses’ explanation of the name he chooses for his son, Gershom. ‘Ger’ – stranger – and ‘shom’ there. In that one word is an expression of Moses’ particular dilemma, representative of every Jew’s dilemma, and the dilemma of the Jewish people as well. To be a stranger in a land not your own, an outsider in a place where you dwell but are not fully connected. To be other. We come from Abraham, the ‘Ivri,’ the one from beyond.

The Torah does not shy away from this core fact of Jewish life, in fact it uses this idea as a constant reminder to us to care for those less fortunate. Time and again the Torah tells us we have a special responsibility to watch out for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger “because we were slaves in Egypt.” We know what that feels like to be other, to be the stranger, and so should be extra-sensitive to those who share that experience.

Over the last week or so a series of stories that have been in the news remind me of how difficult the issue of the stranger is in our culture still today. The killing of Michael Brown, the young black man from Ferguson Missouri, is at least in part a story of what can happen when we fear what we are not, when we are afraid and estranged from the other. At its heart, racism also comes from that kind of fear, and the Michael Brown tragedy is deeply connected to issues of race.

Fear of the other is also at the heart of a ‘nationalities bill’ that is making its way through the Israeli political system, having been approved by the Israeli cabinet this week. As currently constituted, the bill would create a licit distinction between Jews and Arabs, with a two tiered citizenship structure that favors Jews. There are many ways to let the stranger know he is unwelcome, and giving him a different legal status is one tried and tested method.

Finally, there is the issue of conversion to Judaism, which has become contentious particularly in the Orthodox community over the last number of years. A NY Times column this week by a brave Orthodox rabbi about making the conversion process more open and less exclusive and intimidating will raise some hackles in the Orthodox world.

Over the next few days I’ll write a short blog about each of these stories – Michael Brown, the Israel ‘nationality bill,’ and conversion to Judaism. In each case the perception and fear of the other plays a central role. We were strangers in Egypt. I am wondering how well we remember that experience, and the lesson it is supposed to teach us.


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Might and Right – Israel’s Challenges

here a text version of my sermon from the first day of Rosh Hashanah – לשנה טובה

The prayers we offer on RH day are both personal and communal.  We ask God to consider particular hopes, dreams, and concerns that are ours alone, found only in the depths of our own hearts.  But our needs are larger. So we pray also for all people in all places, for peace in the world, for Jews everywhere, and certainly for the state of Israel and her well being.  I know that many of us today come to shul concerned not only about ourselves and our families. We are worried  about the world around us during a dark and difficult time.  About rising anti-Semitism in Europe.  And certainly we come to the beginning of this new year with deep concern in our hearts and souls for the State of Israel.

To say that this has been a difficult year for the Jewish people and for the State of Israel would be understatement.  Sometimes it doesn’t seem to matter what we do, how much we give back to the world, it doesn’t matter that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, that some of the world’s most important technologies come from Israel, that regardless of where we live, Jews make contributions to our surrounding culture and country, to sciences and the arts, to intellectual life, that far exceed our numbers. Especially over the last months, as Israeli soldiers were fighting Hamas in Gaza, and Israeli civilians were running for bomb shelters, we worried and we wondered, and we hoped and prayed for peace, and yet virtually the entire world seemed to blame the Jews.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about all of this is how familiar it is.  Over the summer I read Simon Schama’s new book, a history of the Jewish people, and one thing that quickly became clear – especially in the second half of the book – is how tragically familiar we should be with persecution, prejudice, and a sense of isolation.  In virtually every period of our history it is something we’ve wrestled with and struggled against, and any read through the scope of Jewish history is an immediate reminder of how miraculous it is that we are still here today.

Towards the end of his book, Schama describes the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.  Ferdinand and Isabella, the king and queen, signed the decree giving the Jews 3 months to leave or convert. Don Isaac Abravanel, one the of the great Jewish leaders and scholars of that time, hoped to intervene with the king and queen. He asked whether they had considered ‘that stretching back to antiquity some of the greatest powers on earth imagined that by decreeing exile and dispersion they would end Jewish history and break the covenant of the people with their God.’  ‘Those powers,’ he said to the king and queen, ‘are now all gone, while the Jewish people have survived, and continued, with faith, to pray for the coming of the Messiah.’

It was a courageous statement, because of the truth it conveyed, that those great powers that had oppressed the Jews disappeared entirely – while tiny little Israel had managed to survive. The  Egyptian pyramids became relics, Babylonian and Assyrian culture faded away, the Roman empire fell, but the Jews, despite destruction, despite exile, despite small numbers and centuries of homeless wandering, kept their faith with an ancient covenant and survived.

How did they do this? Schama asks.

It was, he claims, the power of the word that gave Israel the strength to outlive and outlast its antagonists.  By this he means the expressions of the mind, the ideas and values, the morals and ethics, that came to define Judaism, Jewish life, and the Jewish people.  Even when the great physical symbols of Jewish life in antiquity were destroyed, when Jerusalem’s walls came down, when the Temple itself was taken apart stone by stone, when the Jewish people were exiled, and without a homeland, what they always had were their words which gave expression to their practices and values. The Temple could be gone, but Torah could be carried anywhere.  Medgar Evers, the black civil rights activist from the early 60s said it well – “you can kill a man, but you can not kill an idea.”

500 years ago Ferdinand and Isabella were not moved by Abravanel, and the Spanish Expulsion became yet another tragedy in the long history of our people.  But Abravanel knew that there is a victory to be achieved through the word, through ideas and values, through the divine spirit, that can not be achieved through political power or military might. In fact, in our holiday filled calendar, there’s only one that deals with a military victory – Hanukah.  And even in that story we often emphasize the miracle of the oil over the might of the Maccabee army.  The popular song for Hanukah, from the words of the prophet Zachariah sums it up – לא בחיל ולא בכח כי אם ברוחי אמר ה צבאות  – Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit alone, says the Lord, God of Hosts.  As Jews, for so much of our history bereft of a nation, military power, and independence, we learned to define our victories by the spirit, not by the sword.

But the truth is that we paid a terrible price, time and again, when we lacked a sword. For 2000 years we prayed for the ability to control our own destiny, for the power of a state that could protect us against those who would do us harm.  Only in the last 66 years have our prayers been answered and we’ve seen the restoration of Jewish national sovereignty and military strength in the State of Israel.  What we can be grateful for today is that Israel’s sword is strong.  The threat of Hamas is plainly serious, and there is no question in my mind that Israel had to go into Gaza this summer.  No nation should tolerate a continual barrage of rockets fired at its civilian population.  So Israel did what it had to do, what any other nation would do and took up the sword.

I also believe that the responsibility for this war lies at the feet of Hamas, with their tunnels and rockets, and all they had to do to stop it was to stop firing their missiles.  In this sense Israel is not only on the side of might, she’s also on the side of right. Nevertheless, I believe it’s a tragedy, that Palestinian civilians were killed in the course of Israel’s response and to suggest otherwise would be to abandon Zacharia’s understanding of Jewish values.

We know how the IDF goes out of its way to avoid civilian casualties. The IDF warns an area that an attack is coming so civilians can leave, and that is Jewish values.  But how can these values be retained in the face of constant provocation and the lack of peace with the Palestinian people?  The Iron Dome protects Israel from physical harm, but what shields her soul, what protects her Jewish spirit?  How will the tension between חיל and רוחי, between strength of arms and the strength of the divine spirit be resolved in the course of time?

We all felt shame when three Israeli Jews carried out a revenge killing of a Palestinian teen, and collectively we experienced that moment as a failure of the Jewish spirit.  And yes, it was just a few individuals, but there is a context that makes something like that conceivable – an atmosphere, an environment that exists – in Israel, and in the diaspora too- that makes an act like that possible.  And that atmosphere is a threat to Israel – a moral, spiritual threat, in the same way that Hamas or Iran are physical threats.  In the ongoing challenge to maintain a sense of Jewish values and Jewish life, to keep Israel as a proud Jewish nation, that incident was a battle that was lost.

The great Torah reading during the Days of Awe is the Binding of Isaac narrative.  The first verse of that text is ‘and it came to pass after these things that God TESTED Abraham.’  We are old hands at being tested.  In a sense our faith began then, and we’ve been tested ever since.  With exile and destruction, with anti-Semitism and isolation, generation after generation.  And in our day, Israel is being tested once again.  As she was in ’48, and ’67, and ’73.

And what I submit to you is this:  passing the test of ‘might’ – the test of arms, of military strength and power – is the test today. Not only if Israel can reduce the missile arsenal of Hamas, but also if her actions are to be moral and ethical when she does it?  Not only must she root out terror and destroy tunnels, but also keep her values focused on human rights and dignity and life.  And the bar must be set high.  Not because the rest of the world expects more of the Jews, not because the rest of the world holds us and Israel to a higher standard, but because we do!  Because Israel holds itself to a higher standard.  That is what makes Israel Israel.  And it is what makes Israel Jewish.  And we must not lose sight of that.  And most importantly of all, Israel must not lose sight of it.

The good news is this: I don’t believe she ever will.  Israel truly is an amazing country, and Israelis amazing people.  When the Palestinian teenager was killed Israelis all over the country, from every stripe of life, secular, religious, white collar, blue collar, men, women, came together to express their shock, their sadness, their sorrow and shame. Because there was a sense – in the nation – that a line had been crossed, that a test of the spirit had been failed.  And then there was a determination, a national sense of urgency, that that line should not be crossed again, and that the next test should be passed.

For more than 2000 years Jews have gathered on Rosh Hashanah, and collectively, as a nation small in number yet great in spirit, we have prayed for חיים life, for שלום peace, and for תיקון עולם for a better and more Godlike world.  These ideals are in our DNA, they are at the heart of Jewish life, and they have now defined Israel as a nation for 66 years.  And despite dark days, and difficult times Israel will continue to live by those values in the years ahead, until, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, שלום שלום לרחוק ולקרוב there will be peace, there will peace, to those who are near, and to those far away  –

My colleague Michael Graetz who has lived in Israel for many years described Beer Sheva’s annual wine festival that took place just a few days ago.  Beer Sheva, is in the south, not far from Gaza, where many of the Hamas missiles were directed over the summer. And here is what he writes:

“It is an exuberant and fully enjoyable experience for all who come. Artisanal food and wines are on display, and samples are freely given. Thousands of people come out to enjoy the wine tasting, cheeses, olives, jams, breads and many other goodies. In addition there is live entertainment, with jazz groups and some of Israel’s top singers performing for the crowd. There are lots of tables and chairs, many young couples with babies in strollers, in short, a festival of joy and spirit for all. No pressures, just camaraderie, good food, and the most heard phrase over and over again was shana tovah.

“In short, my spirit soared, as I looked out on the few thousands in the space lit up with colored lights, after sampling some really great wine and cheese. You could feel the joy and social cohesion almost as tangible as the lights and music in the night.

“Then, I had a somber moment, when I realized that just a few weeks ago, all of those people, and the babies, and me too were at home at night waiting to hear not jazz but the next siren. We would then dutifully get up and move to a shelter. Some in Beer Sheva were not that fortunate, and houses were destroyed, people injured and even died. But last night, and tonight as well, we are living for life, we are choosing life. We are celebrating our skills at making things, and our religious traditions of a new year that celebrates the beginning of all life. Israelis are living for the now and the future, in our own very special Jewish way. We are determined to do it, and we will. An amazing drummer of a young jazz group started a riff, and went wild.  The crowd almost got still, and exploded into a big ovation at the end. Yes, Yes, Yes that is the spirit of Israel. Teach it and spread it around.”

Let us do that together – this year, next year, for many years to come, as we build towards a world that one day will have peace –

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