Standing With Israel
Yom Kippur Morning – 5775
Rabbi Joseph R. Black
Temple Emanuel – Denver, CO
Back in the heyday of the Soviet Union, a Jewish man once visited the great zoo of Moscow. To his amazement he found a lion and a lamb sleeping together in a cage. The man went to the zoo keeper, a fellow Jew, and said, "Comrade, this is amazing! The Messiah has come. How else can you get a lion and a lamb to lie down together in one cage, much like the prophecy of Isaiah?"
"It's easy," said the zoo keeper. "We put a new lamb in the cage every day."
I tell you this story today, on Yom Kippur morning, because
- as a Jew;
- as a Zionist;
- as a lover of peace and a believer in peace
- as a person of conscience who grieves the loss of life – no matter whose life it may be;
- in the aftermath of one of the most difficult summers we can remember experiencing – most of us from a distance – but some of us from very close quarters;
- and in anticipation of what will follow,
I cannot stand idly by while the world tries to paint Israel as a devouring lion while, at one and the same time, forcing her to play the role of a sacrificial lamb.
I also cannot remain silent when I see the Jewish State vilified around the world – and in this community – for reasons that range from a naïve desire for peace to basic anti-Semitism in the guise of anti-Zionism.
This past summer, as you all know, Sue and I – along with Janet Bronitsky and Mark Suprenand – led a group of 44 members of our congregation on a life-changing trip to Israel. We arrived at Ben Gurion airport on June 27th and immediately became immersed in the miraculous reality that is the modern State of Israel. We witnessed first-hand how the Jewish State was created out of the dreams and hard work of visionary Chalutzim – pioneers. At the same time, we encountered our ancient history as a Jewish people – in the archeological excavations of Masada and the City of David; and in the hills of Tzfat and the beauty of Jerusalem. We experienced the vibrancy of modern Tel Aviv and the solitude of the Negev. We met with and learned from an array of teachers and visionaries who make up the multi-ethnic quilt of Israeli citizenship. And – oh yes – while we were there, a war broke out…..
This past summer we watched the funeral of three young boys who were brutally murdered at the hands of terrorists for no reason save that they were Jews. We also learned of a horrific crime committed by Israeli Jews against a Palestinian Muslim boy who was burned to death in a racist rampage. We heard about missiles being fired from Gaza by Hamas terrorists and we witnessed the ramping up of police and military security.
On the day that most of the members of our group left Israel for the United States, Operation Protective Edge was officially launched by the Israel Defense Forces. Sue and I stayed on a few extra days to visit family in northern Israel. We saw on TV how the Iron Dome System intercepted deadly missiles that were fired – not only on the southernmost communities of Israel, but also on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem - the economic and spiritual heart and soul of the Jewish State. We saw how Sue’s cousins’ kibbutz – Sasa – prepared to welcome families from S’derot and Ashkelon into their homes. These were families who needed rest and respite from constant bombardment and fear in the wake of Hamas’ missiles. We saw how innocent Palestinians in Gaza were trapped in their homes, schools, Mosques and hospitals while terrorists used them as human shields for launching their deadly missiles – knowing full well that Israel’s retaliation would result in innocent civilian casualties. We saw how the IDF did all that it could to minimize collateral damage in its attempt to eliminate the terrorist threat posed by Hamas – broadcasting in advance the locations of its attacks – asking civilians to leave – even calling them on their cell phones to warn them of the danger they faced. We saw the maze of tunnels that Hamas had dug beneath Gaza– tunnels which used cement and other building materials that the world had donated to Hamas for the purpose of rebuilding schools, hospitals and mosques –but instead were appropriated for the machinery of death and terror.
We returned home to a cacophony of voices surrounding the war. Yes, our community let our voices be heard. But we were not the only ones. The streets of Denver were filled with anti-Israel protestors – like every other State in the Union and around the world. I feel gratified to know that, while some of these voices were loud and obnoxious, they had little true impact on our elected officials who stood by Israel in her time of need.
Jewish Colorado sponsored a rally in support of Israel that was held here in our sanctuary. Almost every seat was filled. There were other rallies and actions within the Jewish community as well - some were sponsored by far right groups – others were held by organizations on the far left. Some supported Israel and called for the death of her enemies. Others were quick to condemn – using much of the same rhetoric that those supporting Hamas have used. It is clear that, despite the grave situation that Israel and World Jewry faces, our American Jewish community is not united around a single narrative or perspective.
These are troubling times indeed. For Jews in America and throughout the diaspora, the question of how we relate to the State of Israel has never been more complex. In a recent article in the New York Times, Laurie Goodstein writes about the fact that some American rabbis are thinking about avoiding talking about Israel over the High Holidays because of the divisions in the American Jewish community. Some rabbis have been sharply condemned by their membership for daring to criticize certain aspects of Israeli policy. In other communities, Rabbis have created conflict because they were reluctant to join in with members of their congregation in condemnation of Israel. This, my friends, is cause for alarm. As we are seeing in so many other areas within society – from the media, to our school systems – especially in Jefferson County - , attempts to censor legitimate discourse is the first step on the road to ignorance at best and totalitarianism at worst. As I said from this pulpit last Rosh HaShanah, it is vital that all legitimate voices be heard in the conversation around Israel and her neighbors.
Peter Beinart, a well-known leftist Jewish thinker has taken the issue of speaking from the pulpit about Israel even farther. He writes that it is inappropriate for Rabbis to speak about Israel at all – not because of the controversy it might engender, but rather because most of their congregants have access to the same information as their clergy for learning about the complexities of the situation. According to Beinart, rabbis have no business talking about Israel. That should be left to the academics, the politicos and people like….himself. He writes that instead of preaching about Israel, rabbis should instead teach Torah on the High Holidays.
While I often disagree with much of what Beinart writes, he is correct in saying that Rabbis should teach Torah on the High Holidays. But I virulently disagree with him when he states that Israel has no place on the pulpit.
So let’s look at the Torah portion that we heard chanted so beautifully this morning. In Deuteronomy 29:9 we read the following:
You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel,This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses [that I have warned] you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live;This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses [that I have warned] you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live;
your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp both your woodcutters and your water drawers…..
In other words, the entire community of Israel was standing before God – united - as we are today on this most sacred day.
In chapter 30, verse 19 of Deuteronomy, we read the following:
This day, I call upon heaven and earth as witness before you: I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, so that you and your offspring will live.
One of the aspects of these specific pieces of Torah that have always fascinated me is the fact that there is no equivocation whatsoever. God calls all of us together. We stand at rapt attention. God tells us that we have a simple choice:
Good or Evil. Life or Death. Blessing or Curse.
Boom – that’s it.
It’s pretty simple.
Black and White.
Everything is clear. Our choices lay in front of us.
That was probably one of the last times in our entire history that all Jews could agree on one thing.
Today, the choices faced by the Jewish State are in no way clear or self-evident. As the Israeli author and scholar, Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in a recent essay in the New Republic:
“I have two nightmares about a Palestinian state,” [he writes] … “That there won’t be one and that there will be one[iii].”
Throughout the last 66 years that we have prayed for peace in the Middle East, Israel has been willing to give up territory, release prisoners who have murdered her children, even shake the hand of sworn enemies for the sake of true peace. The Jewish State has had to take risks in her quest for Shalom. Some of those risks have born fruit – even if the pay-off is a bit shaky at times. Egypt and Jordan, while not what anyone would call “friendly” to Israel, still have upheld the peace treaties that were negotiated. Other risks – such as Lebanon and, of course, Gaza have not played out so well.
Over the years, pundits, politicians and average “Jews in the Pews” who cared have shared a wide variety of strong opinions vis-à-vis Israel and the peace process. They range from those who feel that giving up one inch of territory is a sin, to the other extreme that questions the necessity and validity of having a Jewish state in the first place.
I find it fascinating that while we, who consider ourselves to be Israel’s supporters cannot agree on what it means to be a loyal, supportive or critical of Israel, our enemies have no such qualms.
Israel is consistently demonized by her enemies: on college campuses in the United Nations, in the media,
Make no mistake about it, my friends, these are troubling times, not only for the state of Israel, but for the Jewish people as a whole. This past summer we have watched as Israel was attacked – not only by Hamas rockets and terror tunnels, but in the world press, at national conventions of the Presbyterian Church (USA), at meetings of academic organizations and labor unions, on college campuses and on the streets of major capitals around the world.
We have witnessed a world that is quick to boycott, divest, sanction and condemn the Jewish state for so-called “Crimes Against Humanity” while turning a blind eye to far more horrific actions taken by Governments like Syria, Egypt, Iran, China and North Korea, to name just a few – not to mention the rise of a Frankenstein-like hybrid of Radical Islam and Fascism called the Islamic State that has left a path of death and destruction in the wake of achieving its goal of creating a new Islamic Caliphate.
We also have witnessed the natural progression of a virulent anti-Zionism morphing into classical anti-Semitism with chants of “Death to Israel” quickly evolving into “Death to the Jews!” We have witnessed bombings and shootings in Jewish institutions and the beating of Jews on the streets of Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, Brussels, Budapest and throughout the European continent.
Our Torah teaches is to “Choose Life” so that we and our descendants might live. It sounds so simple – but, when it comes to Israel, each choice can become an existential nightmare. Perhaps Prime Minister Netanyahu said it best in 2006, following the end of a particularly brutal conflict in Lebanon when he stated on the floor of the Knesset:
"The truth is that if Israel were to put down its arms there would be no more Israel. If the Arabs were to put down their arms there would be no more war."
While I do not always agree with everything that Prime Minister Netanyahu says or stands for – especially in regards to settlement expansion and his hands-off approach to religious freedom for non-Orthodox Jews in Israel – these words ring true and help us to understand exactly what the State of Israel is facing on a daily basis. Just because this last war has ended in a cease-fire and Hamas appears to be crippled, there can be no cause for rejoicing. There are many others who are ready, willing and able to continue the fight.
So how should we, on this Yom Kippur – this holiest of all days – approach Israel? Despite the rise of Anti-Semitism we have witnessed around the globe, most experts agree that the United States is still the safest place for the Jewish people the world has ever seen. We can sit back and watch without getting involved in Israel and it probably won’t change our external lives at all. In addition, recent studies have shown that fewer and fewer American Jews find Israel to be an important part of their Jewish identity. When we factor in age and affiliation with a synagogue or a religious movement, the numbers are even more disturbing.
Is Israel important? Does it have a place on the pulpit? Does it belong around our break-the –fast tables and in everyday conversation? Or are we weary – and we wish it would just go away so we don’t have to worry about it.
My friends, you all know my answer. And yet, I’m going to say it anyway. Let’s set aside the historical, spiritual and emotional connections that Jews have had with the Land that we call the State of Israel for a moment – and let’s focus on the following four fascinating facts about the Jewish State:
- Israel is almost finished building a cyber/Technological center in Beersheva in partnership with several multi-national corporations that rivals what the United States has built in Silicon Valley; what Russia, China, India and any other nation has built to date. Israel will soon be a cyber super power.
- Within the next decade, Israel’s Leviathan natural gas field will have will have the capacity to revolutionize the energy supply around the world. Israel will have enough natural gas to remove Russia from its current position as the prime supplier of energy for Eastern Europe. It already has entered into deals to supply gas to Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority.
- Israel has already become a global leader in bio-tech, nano-technology and computer science.
Now imagine if you could build a nation from scratch that could guarantee that it would feed its own people, provide water for agriculture and human consumption, be energy independent and become a technological innovator in multiple areas – while maintaining, at the same time its Democratic, principles, defending its borders against hostile enemies and retaining a centuries old tradition of spiritual and religious values. You’d be impressed wouldn’t you?
I firmly believe that Jewish life and the Jewish people are inexorably linked with the State of Israel. We need Israel as much as she needs us. We need to travel to Israel. We need to learn as much as we can about Israel and we need to support groups and organizations that work on her behalf.
Last year, as you will recall, I spoke about the need for all partners in the Zionist enterprise to have a seat at the Table of communal discourse. I still believe this. In the next few weeks you will be receiving information about two major events that will be held here at Temple Emanuel – one will be sponsored by J-street and the Other by AIPAC. These are not our programs – they are being held in our building – but it is important that we hear from all sides of the pro-Israel spectrum. I’m also very happy to remind everyone that, once again, the Rocky Mountain Rabbinical Council –in conjunction with all of the congregations, Jewish Colorado and CAJE are once again offering iEngage. If you have not had the opportunity to take advantage of this special opportunity to learn more about Israel and engage in open and educated discussion about the issues surrounding the Jewish State, I urge you to do so. Information about iEngage is in all of our educational materials, our website and Facebook.
I also plan on attending the annual AIPAC policy conference that will take place in our nation’s capital on March 1st through the 3rd. I hope that many of will join with me as well. I am proud of the fact that many national and regional leaders of AIPAC have come from our congregation. This year, more than ever, we need to show solidarity with Israel. The AIPAC policy conference is one of the best ways that we can show both the State of Israel, and our own elected officials that we stand with Israel. Remember, if it had not been for AIPAC’s efforts, the Iron Dome Missile system that saved thousands of Israeli lives may not have been in place. Please join me in DC this year. It is an amazing experience to spend 3 days learning and lobbying our leaders about the vital importance of the partnership between the United States and Israel.
My friends, today is a day when we focus on those aspects of ourselves and our souls that truly matter. None of us is perfect – and neither is the State of Israel. But, as I said last night, perfection is not a Jewish value – perspective is. WE have both the ability and the responsibility to learn about, visit and show our support for the Jewish state.
Today, our Torah teaches, we are given a choice. Let us choose life – for ourselves and for our brothers and sisters in the State of Israel.