Congregation Beth Israel
Rosh Hashanah Day 2 | September 22, 2017
Do you remember the first time you fell in love? Not just the first time you had a crush on the person sitting next to you in math class, but the first time you felt something inside – something you knew would become a deep, personal, meaningful connection that would last many years. I was 16 the first time I really had these feelings. We were on a trip with my 11th-grade class in September of 2000. I had seen her before over the years, but never in this way. We had gone for a little walk to a beautiful overlook. It was early in the morning, the sun was not yet up. We sat there as a class, watching, waiting, wondering what we were there for. Our teacher stood up and began to tell us a story just as the sun began to rise. Music was playing in the background as the story continued. Then, just as the sun began to peak over the horizon and to shine on our still tired faces – that’s when it happened. That’s when I really saw her for the first time. That’s when I fell in love with the City of Jerusalem and the State of Israel.
I was spending the first semester of 11th-grade living, and learning at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel. It was not the first time I had been there, but it was the first time I really explored my own connection to the land. On that morning, we gathered on the Haas Promenade, the Tayelet, an overlook of Jerusalem from the south, where tradition holds that Avraham first saw Mount Moriah, the spot on which two Temples would later be built. As the sun rose, one of our teachers told us the story of the Israeli paratroopers who first set foot in the Old City of Jerusalem during the 6-Day War in 1967. On June 7th 50 years ago, members of the 55th Paratroopers Reserve Brigade, came into the Old City and quickly made their way to the Temple Mount – the holiest site in our tradition. The spot where the Ark of the Covenant and the great Menorah were once kept. The spot that Jews around the world turn towards when they pray. When he first set foot on that sacred ground, Arik Akhmon, an intelligence officer with that brigade said, “there you are on a half-track after two days of fighting, with shots still filing the air, and suddenly you enter this wide open space that everyone has seen before in pictures, and though I’m not religious, I don’t think there was a man who wasn’t overwhelmed with emotion. Something special had happened.” (Michael Oren, Six Days of War, 245) As those paratroopers stood on the Temple Mount, a call went out on the radio frequencies of the Israeli army announcing, “Har ha-Bayit be-Yadeinu! Har ha-Bayit be-Yadeinu!” The Temple Mount is in our hands.
Thirty-three years later, as I sat on a hill overlooking where that very story took place, I too was overwhelmed with emotion as something truly special was happening. Not just because of the story that was told, but because of the music that accompanied it.
Three weeks before the Six Day War broke out, a then relatively unknown singer, Shuly Natan, came on stage at the Israeli Music festival and sang the newest song by the famous Israeli songwriter, Naomi Shemer. אויר הרים צלול כיין she began. “The mountain air is clear as water / the scent of pines around / is carried on the breeze of twilight / and tinkling bells resound. The trees and stones there softly slumber / a dream enfolds them all / So solitary lies the city / and at its heart – a wall.” Shemer wrote in this beautiful language, of the lonely city of Jerusalem, that for so long was separated from us and our people.
ירושלים של זהב, ושל נחשת ושל אור הלא לכל שיריך אני כינור. “Oh, Jerusalem of Gold, and of light, and of bronze, I am the lute for all your songs.”
The song was an instant hit and became one of the most popular Israeli songs almost immediately. But there was a problem. In the second verse of the song, Shemer wrote that the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, stood empty, as no Jews were able to reach this sacred place. Now, just three weeks after the song had been written, this verse was no longer true. While the paratroopers were first entering the Temple Mount and the call went out on the radio, Shemer stood in a date grove in the Sinai desert, waiting to perform for soldiers fighting there. She heard this call and understood that her song now needed a new verse. Shemer grabbed a pen, leaned on the back of a nearby soldier and wrote out a new verse. חזרנו אל בורות המים לשוק ולכיכר שופר קורא בהר הבית בעיר העתיקה
“The wells are filled again with water / the square with joyous crowd / On the Temple Mount within the city / the shofar rings out loud.”
Hearing that song played, while looking out at the very place it speaks of, I was hooked. The Talmud teaches that ten measures of beauty were given to the world, and nine were taken by Jerusalem. On that morning, I could count every one of those measures. I knew then that the words of Psalm 137 must always ring true, אם אשכחך ירושלים – תשכח ימיני – forgetting Jerusalem would be like forgetting my own right hand. It would be forgetting a crucial part of who we are as a Jewish people.
Much of what I just described is based on reflections I wrote after returning from a year spent living in Israel. Those feelings and that connection were at the top of my head, and clearly my heart. I remember writing at the time feeling like it all was pouring out of me, that I too was a lute for all of Israel’s songs. Looking back on it now, I still feel every word I wrote to be true, but it was just a bit harder to read this time. It’s now been nearly four years since I’ve last visited Israel, and while absence does make the heart grow fonder, it also has a way of making us forget a little bit of that special feeling.
But also it’s a bit harder because sadly events of the last few years have made it a little bit harder to feel this way towards Israel. In July, I spoke to you about the so-called Kotel Agreement, negotiated by the leadership of the major movements of Liberal Judaism in North America with members of the Israeli government, to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, ensuring that one of Judaism’s holiest sites would be approachable and welcoming to Jews of all kinds. Both those who seek to maintain traditional practices, but also those who want to stand and pray with their family, men and women together, at this sacred site. After initially agreeing to this plan, the Israeli government delayed for months at a time before finally announcing over the summer it was fully abandoning this plan over pressure from the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate. Likewise, that same week, word leaked out that the very same Chief Israeli Rabbinate maintained a list of rabbis from outside of Israel, whose conversions it did not recognize as valid. Included on this so-called blacklist were many American rabbis I know and respect, including our own Rabbi Nudell.
With both of these instances happening within a few days of each other, it felt a lot like a slap in the face, reminding us that as much as we care, as invested as we are, Israel is still far from perfect, and isn’t quite yet the home for all Jews we want it to be. Issues of religious pluralism, government corruption, and human rights controversies still fill our newsfeed each and every day.
As much as we may love Israel, I’m not always sure Israel loves us back. We often try and try to impact and affect Israel’s outlook and policies, but rarely do we get the response we’re looking for. Sometimes it feels as if we’re Eponine in Les Miserables, wandering the streets of Paris singing the ultimate anthem of unrequited love. “And although, I know that he is blind, still I say, there’s a way for us. I love him, but every day I’m learning. All my life, I’ve only been pretending.”
It’s feelings and realities like these that led the leadership of the Conservative Movement to deliver a letter to the Israel government asking for respect and acknowledgment of these issues. Signed by nearly 600 rabbis, including myself, the letter states:
“Mr. Prime Minister, we are Zionists. We have, will and continue to support Israel as the realization of the Jewish dream “lihiyot Am chofshee b’artzeynu – to be a free people in our Land.” You must understand, however, that in the 21st century we find it unconscionable that Israel, the Jewish State, is the only democratic state in the world in which not all Jews are recognized or supported equally under the law or in the public square.”
The point here is valid. How is it that in Israel of all places, I wouldn’t be recognized as a rabbi? This goes against so much of what Israel was founded to be, a homeland for all Jews, not just those who practice Judaism in a particular way.
While I did sign the letter and do agree with much of what it says, there is a point on which I disagree. The letter concludes, “Mr. Prime Minister, you can influence the content of our Yamim Noraim messages. Will we speak of Israel’s reality in a language of betrayal or hope? Will we speak of struggle or achievement? We ask you to lead; we ask you to fulfill your promise to us that Israel will be the homeland of the entire Jewish people – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and secular.”
What troubles me here is the suggestion that I should speak of Israel in a language of betrayal. To be clear, that does not mean speaking of Israel critically, questioning its government’s political and religious policies as we’ve done here. But betrayal? That’s a step I’m not willing to take. Even as challenging as it can be for us, particularly at this moment, a betrayal of Israel would be a betrayal of us as Jews. Israel can be problematic. Israel can be controversial. But Israel is always a part of who we are. These challenging times are not opportunities for us to betray and disengage, opting out of our heritage and connection, but instead, it is our moment to dive in. To make our voice heard, to show our presence and support
As Eponine says, “still I say there’s a way for us.” So what is our way? What are the ways we can show our support at these troubling times?
Jess Geller so beautifully shared with us earlier this morning the importance of purchasing Israel Bonds. While so many others speak of divesting from Israel, we can speak of investing in Israel, supporting her when she needs us most, putting our money where our heart is.
For those who may be more politically inclined, you can join me in attending AIPAC’s Policy Conference in Washington DC this March. Having been at Policy Conference each of the last five years, learning from America’s Pro-Israel lobby, I find those days to be among the most impactful on my calendar. Gathering together with over 10,000 people, both young and old, who proudly support and stand up for Israel, is an inspiring feeling. Knowing that as an American I can do something to make sure my country stands for Israel in the political sphere, especially at a time of growing political concern, makes me proud of our political process. It also is one of the last places that feels truly bi-partisan, where democrats and republicans come together to speak on Israel’s behalf. If you have been before you know what I’m talking about and if you’ve never been, please think about joining me in Washington, March 4-6.
Finally, what better way to show and build our connection to Israel, than by visiting. Just over one year from now, our Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest is organizing a community mission to Israel for the entire region to celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary. People from all areas of our Jewish community—those involved with agencies and synagogues as well as those who have not yet found their place—are included. If you have never been to Israel before this will be a defining moment. If you have been to Israel before, this will be a re-defining moment. Any trip to Israel is special, but having the opportunity to go with a group of this size from all across our community gives us unique experience with special access and opportunities. As a mission, it’s travel with a purpose. We’ll see Israel from multiple perspectives, through the eyes of people from all walks of Israeli life. We’ll meet leaders of politics, culture, business, technology and the military. We’ll hear from recent immigrants about how they are building new lives in Israel. CBI has signed on as a participating organization and we are planning to fill a bus with members of our congregation, creating a special chance to see Israel together with your CBI family. I am hoping to participate in the trip myself so please consider joining me from October 14-22 of next year. Stay tuned for an information session to learn about the trip in greater detail and to sign up.
And even if none of these options are right for you, there is still a way for us, and that is to be informed, involved, and engaged. You can join the Israel Support Committee here at CBI to help shape how we as a community are connected to Israel. You can attend events in our community and the greater New Jersey / New York community. Or you can simply follow the news, staying informed of the latest happenings in Israel and around the Middle East. Taking any or all of these steps helps us show our support at this difficult time, precisely the time when it is needed most.
Israel is not a perfect place. Far from it. But it is our place and we pray that it will forever remain our place, a place that Jewish people of all backgrounds can call home. Even still as we approach her problems and issues, even as she doesn’t seem to love us back all the time, we still remember the words of Hatikvah:
עוֹד לֹא אָבְדָה תִּקְוָתֵנוּ, הַתִּקְוָה בַּת שְׁנוֹת אַלְפַּיִם, לִהְיוֹת עַם חָפְשִׁי בְּאַרְצֵנוּ, אֶרֶץ צִיּוֹן וִירוּשָׁלַיִם.
“This hope is not yet lost, for it has been with us for 2,000 years. To be a free nation, in our land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
There’s another classic Israeli song, this one from 1991 entitled “Kan,” “here.” Written by Uzi Hitman, he writes of Israel as always being his home.
כאן ביתי פה אני נולדתי – Here is the house where I was born
במישור אשר על שפת הים – In the plains that run alongside the sea
כאן החברים איתם גדלתי – Here I grew up with my friends
ואין לי שום מקום אחר בעולם – And I have no other place in the world.
He goes on to say that finally, after 2,000 years, his wanderings have come to an end now that he has Israel to call home.
So too have our ancestral wanderings come to an end after 2,000 years as the Jewish people have a place we can call home. A place that challenges us, a place that’s not perfect, but a place about which I hope each of us can say, ואין לי שום מקום אחר בעולם.
“I have no other place in the world.”