Thursday, October 13, 2016

Israel: A Two Way Street - Yom Kippur Morning-5777

My Dear Friends,

There is an experience that I have only had twice in my life – but both of these times left a lasting impression on me.  The first time was in 1975.  The second was in 1982.  It has been 34 years since I last experienced it and I remember it like it was yesterday.  I am referring to being in Israel on Yom Kippur.  In 1975 I was a Junior in High School – participating in the Eisendrath International Exchange  (EIE) program at the Leo Baeck school in Haifa.  In 1982, I was a first year Rabbinical Student studying at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem.

To be in Israel on Yom Kippur is to experience silence – or as close as you can find silence in an urban environment.  There are no cars, no radios or Televisions.  Any noise you might hear comes from the synagogues that line the streets or the sounds of worshippers walking in the middle of empty roads that are normally filled with cars, busses and taxis.

Not everyone in Israel goes to Synagogue on Yom Kippur but everyone - from the most secular to the most religious – strives to preserve a sense of holiness and reflection during the course of the day.  The truth is, the sanctity of Yom Kippur is one of the few things about which all Israelis can agree.  Almost every other aspect of life in Israel is subject to politicization and argumentation.

Yom Kippur is not only a day of silence in Israel – it also is a day of historical significance.  43 years ago, on Yom Kippur morning, October 6, 1973, the sanctity of our fast was violently and irrevocably destroyed when the armies of Syria and Egypt launched cross-border attacks through the Sinai and the Golan Heights against the Jewish state.  For the first 48 hours, the Arab armies experienced significant victories against the Israel Defense Forces, but eventually the Arab onslaught was subdued and Israel went on to defeat her enemy.   Israel paid a heavy price in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War.  The cost in human life was very high.  The leftist political establishment was dismantled and a new era of politics was set in motion that ultimately led to the ascension of Menachem Begin’s Likud party to political prominence.       

For those of us who are old enough to remember 43 years ago with clarity, the experience of walking into the Synagogue on this holiest of days and seeing and hearing Television sets and radios blaring was unsettling.  Although I was only 13 at the time, I remember well how my Rabbi, David Polish, set aside his Yom Kippur sermon and organized an impromptu emergency fund-raising campaign.  I remember the fear in the faces of my parents and their friends who were desperately afraid that Israel might not make it through the first 48 hours.  On that day, 43 years ago, all Jews were united in the love, fear and support of the State of Israel.

So much has changed since that fateful day, hasn’t it? 

There used to be an assumption that every Jew, no matter how religious or non-observant, ultimately feels a strong connection to the State of Israel.  While that may have been the case in the past, we all know that this is no longer true.  During the first few decades of Israeli independence, the majority of American and World Jewry saw the embattled Jewish State as a symbol of pride.  Zionism, and its message of Jewish self-sufficiency in a Jewish homeland, was a central aspect of Jewish identification.  This, coupled with the recent memory of the Shoah and its horrors, caused us to see Israel as an extension of our Jewish selves.  We defended Israel's right to exist - holding our collective breaths during times of crisis and rejoicing in her miraculous victories.  We demonstrated our support with our political clout and our pocketbooks, by making Aliyah, traveling on Pilgrimages and sending our Children to study and experience the "Miracle on the Mediterranean." 

Today, however, the term “Zionist” has become controversial.  Our enemies have tried to co-opt the term by linking it with policies of oppression and racism.  Some of our Christian friends have called themselves Zionists it to describe their love of Israel – despite the fact that Zionism can only be used in context with the Jewish connection to the land of our people.  Organizations in our own community that question the traditional Zionist narrative have gained legitimacy – especially with young people - some of whom are  joining forces with virulently anti-Israeli movements that support a secular, One-State solution and  BDS – Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.

While Israel still needs our political and emotional support, our dollars are becoming less important. Israel's economic fortunes continue to shine.  On a recent trip to Israel, I was amazed to realize that, for the first time in over 60 years, the Israeli economy was no-longer linked exclusively to the dollar.  It used to be a given in Israel that durable goods were all linked to US currency.  No more.    The prices of homes, cars and other large-ticket items were listed in either Shekels or Euros.  Store owners actually preferred shekels and were reluctant to accept American currency.

The Jewish state has become a major powerhouse in electronics, medical research, defense technology, agricultural innovation and the arts - to name just a few areas of success.  Many Israelis are enjoying the fruits of an economic boom that has quickly propelled them into the ranks of the Nouveau Riche.  At the same time, Israeli youth are becoming increasingly disillusioned and disenfranchised and, the eternal curse of the privileged - bored. 

Concurrent with Israel’s economic growth, we are also witnessing a rise in poverty and crime in Israel.  Not everyone has benefitted equally from Israel’s economic successes. The Gap between the wealthy and the poor is growing and the middle-class is shrinking. New immigrants, in particular, and traditional minorities are suffering.  Israel also has a massive African refugee problem as a result of tens of thousands of desperate men, women and children who have fled war, poverty and famine to find refuge in the closest democratic republic. 

Israel still faces security threats: Just two days ago, at a light-rail station in Jerusalem, a Palestinian terrorist shot and killed two Jewish Israelis and severely wounded 5 others.  This is one in a string of recent violent attacks by so-called “lone wolves” who are radicalized by incessant anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic rhetoric coming from all corners of Palestinian society.  Rocket fire from Gaza, while not an everyday occurrence, still threatens the lives of those living in the south.  In the North, the tragedy of Syria has played out dangerously close to the border while Hezbollah’s rockets, tunnels and commandos continue to pose a potentially existential threat.  ISIS is threatening to creep into the West Bank and Gaza.

And, of course, issues of religious freedom are of key concern to those of us who feel betrayed by an Israeli government that places politics over pluralism.  The Ultra-Orthodox coalition partners continue to flex their muscles – threatening to uproot the fragile, far right coalition government headed by Prime Minster Netanyahu.  The corrupt Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem issues one outrageous declaration after another: now they are not only condemning Reform and Conservative Jews, but they also recently issued a ban on the acceptance of conversions by leading American Orthodox rabbis. 

The farce of the Western Wall egalitarian agreement negotiated in good faith by Natan Sharansky –head of the Jewish Agency for Israel is now in shambles. As such, it has now found its way to the Supreme Court where, hopefully, pluralism will prevail  despite the current government’s lack of strength or desire to enforce it.

In many ways, it appears that the multiple problems facing Israel seem unsolvable. 

I’m reminded of a story that I recently heard about a man named Sam who was walking on the beach. He happened to stumble upon an old tarnished lamp.  He picked it up, started to polish it and POOF, out popped a genie, just like the stories of old.
The grateful genie said to Sam "Thank you for freeing me from my prison.  As a reward, I'll grant you one wish."
Sam said to the Genie:  "I've been a life-long Cubs fan. Just like everyone else, I've hoped and I've prayed to see the Cubs make it back to the World Series. It would mean more to me than anything to see the Cubbies win."
"I'm sorry," replied the genie. "What you ask is too much. Their pitching rotation is weak, they've got a terrible ERA index, and the curse of the goat is just too strong. You must ask another request."
"Well," Sam said, "I'm a good Jew, committed, dedicated to Israel. How about peace between Israel and her neighbors?"
The genie thought about it for a moment, then answered: "Do you want the Cubs to sweep in 4 on the road or win it in Game 7 at Wrigley Field?"

Israel is not a perfect place – far from it, and yet I firmly believe that the reality of the Jewish State is one of, if not THE most important components of Jewish identity in the 21st Century. 

This morning, I want to challenge you to think about the role of Israel in our lives.  Are we still united?  Does Israel instill in you a sense of pride or is it more like fatigue?  Does the term “Zionist” resonate within your self-identity or is it a relic of another era?  These are important questions for us to address – especially on this Day of Yom Kippur. 

As you all know, we are in the midst of Sheloshim – the 30 day period of mourning – for Shimon Peres – a luminary figure in the history of the State of Israel.

Peres, to his dying day, was an optimist.  He also was the rare politician who evolved to meet the challenges of his time:

  • He came to Palestine from Poland as a young boy in 1934.  Like so many others, he and his family were refugees from the rampant anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe that would soon morph into the horrors of the Nazi Era.
  • He began his career as a protégé of David Ben Gurion.·        
  • He was a warrior – fighting with the Haganah and becoming Defense minister in the early days of the Jewish State.
  • He was a diplomat and a fundraiser – establishing important relationships with France when many other nations – including the United States – were not keen on selling desperately needed military hardware to the newly-formed state.
  • He was one of the key architects of Israel’s nuclear program.
  • Following the 6 day war, he became a strong proponent of building settlements in the Territories.
  • He vigorously and relentlessly fought against Palestinian terror and was a bitter enemy of Yassir Arafat.
  • But, later in his career, when he saw the necessity to make peace, he made sacrifices and forged difficult paths to address the realities he saw on the ground.  His passion for dialogue with his enemies paved the way for the Oslo accords.
  • He eventually stood with his sworn enemy, Arafat and political rival, Yitzchak Rabin on a platform in Oslo when they all received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.
  • He understood that the Status Quo could not stand.
  • He took risks and as a result was vilified by many.
  • He rose through the ranks of Israeli politics and became both Prime Minister and President of the Jewish State – although it was not until the last years of his life that he achieved the status of a beloved elder.
  • Many Israelis on the right felt betrayed by his willingness to negotiate peace and those on the left remember his hawkish dedication to the settler movement – a stance he reversed when he realized that it was only through compromise and sacrifice that true peace could be attained.
  • At the end of his career – he assumed a new role – that of an exemplar of bravery and statesmanship.
  • He was the last of his era – a man who fled persecution in Poland, made Aliya and whose entire life and career revolved around the formation, preservation and evolution of the Jewish State.
  • He came to Palestine when the idea of Israel was just a dream.
  • He died at the age of 93 having helped to make that dream – his dream – OUR dream - a reality.

In discussing Peres’ legacy, my dear friend, Eddie Goldfine, who lives in Tel Aviv, recently shared a thought with me.  He said:  “You know, Joe, Peres is as much a product of Israel as Israel is a product of Peres.”

I thought about that statement for a while, and then I realized how true it was.  Shimon Peres was able to accomplish so much for the Jewish State because of what it gave to him: a home, security, meaning and purpose.  In turn, he repaid his adopted homeland with his vision, passion and many talents. And it was at that point that I realized that I could broaden Eddie’s statement: 

“The Jewish community is as much a product of the State of Israel as the State of Israel is a product of the Jewish community.”

Think about that for a moment:  If we only think about our relationship with Israel in terms of how it impacts us, then Israel is merely another country to visit, sightsee, take pictures and come home with a few souvenirs.

But if the idea and the ideal of a Jewish State – a Jewish homeland – a sanctuary and a wellspring of spiritual, historical and intellectual connectivity speaks to us, then we have no choice but to admit to and embrace the compelling and vital links that exist between our community and our sisters and brothers in Israel.

As you know, I feel very strongly about these issues.  My convictions are deep because I am a Zionist.  I have always been a Zionist.   Israel is central to my understanding of who I am - as a Jew and as a human being.   And I also believe that most of you here this morning are Zionists as well.

If you have ever been grieved by the verbal and physical assaults on Israel by her enemies - you are a Zionist. 

If you have ever sung Hatikvah in a room filled with other Jews and felt shivers run up and down your spine, you are a Zionist.

If you feel a kinship and a solidarity with Jews around the world - you are a Zionist.

If you see the plight of the Jews of France and other countries where anti-semitism is increasingly becoming a nightmarish reality, and you give thanks for the fact that they have a homeland that is prepared and willing to take them it en-masse, you are a Zionist.

If you ever felt pride in the achievements of Israeli Industry, Agriculture or the arts, you are a Zionist.

If you have ever experienced the beauty of walking in the streets of Jerusalem on a Shabbat or Yom Kippur afternoon - you are, and will always be - a Zionist.

We are all Zionists because despite her flaws, the State of Israel is central to our historical and spiritual birthright.  Throughout our history, the land of Israel has been inexorably linked to our self-understanding.  When we pray, we face Jerusalem.  During Passover, and at the end of our prayers this evening we will pray: "L'Shanah Ha-Ba-ah B'yerushalayim - Next year in Jerusalem."  In our prayer books, in our poetry and music, in every age, Jews have been spiritually and physically connected to this land.  Zionism is a movement that is the natural outgrowth of that connectedness.

To be a Zionist is not to state that we agree with every policy of the current Israeli Government.  We have a right – indeed a responsibility to raise our voices when we see issues of concern.  But when we do raise our voices – it must be out of love – based on our historical and spiritual connection to Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael – the land and people of Israel.

My friends, on this Yom Kippur morning I am asking you to exercise your rights and responsibilities as Jews to learn as much as you can and get involved in strengthening your relationship with Israel.  In March. I will be attending the annual AIPAC policy conference in Washington DC.  Join me. 

Travel to Israel.  This August, Cantor Sacks, Sue and I will be leading a family b’nai mitzvah trip.  Join us if you are in this demographic. Read books, take classes, learn as much as you can.  If you are a student on a college campus, or if you have a child who is a college student, find resources to combat the increasing anti-Israel activities that, unfortunately have become commonplace.  Connect with Hillel, call us here at Temple – you are not alone!

On this Yom Kippur, I ask that you join with me in renewing your commitment to Israel – not by withholding criticism, but rather by celebrating the fact that we live in a time and a place where we are able to see a vibrant Democracy emerging on the land of our ancestors.  May the year 5777 bring with it hopes for Peace for the State of Israel and her neighbors.  May we, as well continue to strengthen our relationship with the land and people of Israel.

Ken Yehi Ratzon. AMEN

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