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 –