Yom Kippur 5775: Rabbi Greg Wolfe

When It Comes to Israel, It’s Relation, Relation, Relation!

The former chief Rabbi of England, Lord Jonathan Sacks, writes, “Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of days is a time when we do more than confess and seek atonement for our sins. It’s the supreme day of Teshuvah, which means ‘returning, coming home.’ To come home we have to ask who we are and where we truly belong. It is a day when we reaffirm our identity.” (Sacks, Letters to the Next Generation: Reflections on Jewish Life, p.5)

But who are we? Who are we? We are not merely individuals who happened to show up together tonight/today; we belong to something larger than ourselves, a community, a people! As we reaffirm our personal identity on this Yom Kippur, we begin to explore, as well, our attachment to the Jewish people. Where do I feel my relationship most keenly? How can I feel more connected?” During the past year, we have been exploring our relationships with one another at Bet Haverim, seeking to engage everyone in conversation and in deepening our sense of community. We have discovered, very clearly, the power of relationships, of feeling connected. As a result, many of you will be joining chavurot this fall and expanding your connection with others at Bet Haverim through a variety of interactive opportunities. But Jewish community is much larger than just us! We, here in Davis, are only a single cell in the larger body of Israel, the Jewish people that extends around the globe. As we Jews around the world gather on this most holy of nights/days, we are linked into an enriching and sustaining network of relationships to Jews everywhere and to Israel, our Jewish homeland, which sits at the heart of our Jewish family. However, like in any family, these relationship can become muddled, complicated, even vexing. Yom Kippur is the perfect time to reexamine our most precious relationships and reinvigorate them by working through the challenges and looking for the opportunities to build stronger bonds. While this is certainly true within families, tonight/today I want to speak about our individual and collective relationships with Israel.

The terrible violence in Israel and Gaza this summer has challenged us to think about our relationship to Israel in new ways. Many of us were reminded of the centrality of Israel to our Jewish identity. Our kinship was strengthened, as the bombs flew, soldiers fell, and the tunnels for murder and mayhem against innocent Israeli citizens by Hamas were discovered and their purposes thwarted. For others among us, there was confusion and discomfort, even anguish. Amidst the worry for Israel, we also lamented the terrible destruction that was visited upon the people of Gaza. Though Gaza’s devastation was often wrought due to decisions by Hamas’ own leadership, we could not help wondering about the cost of Israel’s mission. Was anything resolved? Or were problems just prolonged? Are we any closer to peace or simply digging in for more of the same? The nuances and complexities of Israel’s right to defend herself and her people, under very difficult conditions where terrorists embedded themselves amidst schools, hospitals and mosques, were lost, as they often are, in the media coverage. And, as if that wasn’t enough, new and ugly waves of antisemitism were unleashed around the world, ostensibly in response to what was transpiring in Gaza.

My thoughts tonight/today, however, are not concerned specifically with this summer’s Protective Edge campaign, as you can read a myriad of insightful analyses in various media. Rather, I want to dig a bit deeper with you into the underlying issues impacting our Jewish community’s relationship with Israel. I believe that the Jewish people’s bond with Israel has stood at the core of Jewish identity for millennia. Israel, quite literally, is the root of our Jewishness. And, beyond its location, beyond its geography, and its history, Israel represents for us, today, the creative vitality of Jewish life in the modern world. Israel leads the way in solar power generation, in life saving medical technology, in High-Tech navigation apps like WAZE, and in key agricultural advances such as seawater desalination. But, for many Jews today, the age-old and long-cherished relationship with Israel is not clear cut; not, by any means, automatic. Eretz Yisrael, this sacred place, at the heart of the Jewish world, that once united us so completely is now so divisive a topic that even rabbis, according to a recent article in the NY Times, are fearful to speak about it so as not to risk alienating their communities. My aim tonight/today is to help us to gain some insight into what is distancing Jews from Israel. Perhaps, then, we will see a path to restoring and reengaging our vibrant relationship with Israel in meaningful ways.

The story is told of a visitor to Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo who saw that each enclosure bore a sign with a pertinent biblical quotation. One quoted the prophet Isaiah, “[T]he wolf and the lamb shall dwell together.” Across the moat separating the animals from the spectators, the visitor saw that a wolf and a lamb were, indeed, resting peaceably, side by side. Amazed, he sought out the zookeeper and asked how that was possible. “It’s simple,” the zookeeper replied. “Every day we put in a new lamb.”

One challenge for us, as Jews living outside of Israel, is the chasm that exists between the ideal and the real Israel. The tale of the wolf and lamb serves as a metaphor for the stark disconnect between the peaceful world envisioned by our prophet Isaiah, a world that we still hope for, pray for and work for, and the reality of the neighborhood in which Israel finds herself. It’s a jungle out there! [Please note: no lambs were injured in the writing of this sermon!] In reality, Israel is enmeshed in a messy, violent struggle that entails bloody battles for survival, and suffering for many innocents among Israelis and Palestinians. This gives rise to frustration and confusion for many of us at the intractability of the situation and the lack of a clear partnership for peace. Many of us despair; we experience futility and even anger. We are disappointed, we feel let down. Where is the Israel we Jews dreamed about? The perfect, ideal society we had hoped for? Some of us want to disengage; to give up.

Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel, was once asked: Why are you so insistent on choosing the Land of Israel as the Jewish homeland? Why not choose Uganda, instead? Wouldn’t that be much simpler? He responded: Why would you choose to visit your grandma who lives 50 miles away when there are already so many nice old ladies in your neighborhood who are quite lonely and would love the company?

You see, Israel is not just another country to us. It is our country! Not perfect, but, for good and for bad, it is ours, OUR family. Our connections with Israel run thousands of years deep. Israel has been a source of inspiration to our ancestors in the diaspora, long before the modern state was born, forging a collective identity that united Jews around the world. Empires have come and gone that have included the Land of Israel, but there has never been an independent state on that land other than a Jewish state since the time of King David, 3,000 years ago. Our roots are deeply intertwined with that particular piece of geography. Even though most of us don’t live there, we are all family, with all that that entails. And who in our family is perfect, without fault?! (Anyone in ours, honey?… I didn’t think so.) An ideal is just that. It’s not real. It’s something to aim for. Being part of a family means we grow with one another toward our goals; we accept each other as we are, while working together to better ourselves.

With family comes responsibility and with family comes opportunity! So it is with our relationship with Israel. Of course, Israel is not ideal. It is a real country struggling with real issues and real politics. Just like every other country. And by just about any measure, Israel is excelling on many fronts. So what is our family responsibility to Israel? We don’t have to agree on everything all the time. There is room for divergent opinions and the possibility for challenging one another in healthy ways. But we have to be there for each other! We don’t walk out on each other just because we are disappointed or upset about Israel’s behavior. We have a family’s commitment to work things out. And, like in most of our families, you don’t always get to have the final say or have ultimate control. Despite everything, this is a relationship for the long haul. We look out for each other’s best interests. We have the opportunity to say things to those we love that we can’t say to others outside this inner circle. Because we love Israel, we have input into the direction and nature of our relationship. We can learn from each other and push each other to grow. This is what it means to be a family!

The second challenge highlighted by the story of the wolf and the lamb involves perception. Do we see Israel as the wolf? Or is Israel the lamb in this story? For many, many years we Jews have been the lamb and we have envisioned ourselves as the lamb: Israel always in peril, the ever-endangered nation. That is the story that we told about ourselves for a long time. Yet, the story of “poor Israel,” who needs our help to survive, Rabbi Donniel Hartman now argues, no longer resonates with many segments of the Jewish population. In fact, I believe that just such a portrayal–emphasizing perennial crisis and weakness–has played a role in Jewish disenchantment with and disengagement from Israel.

So, the second challenge we really face in our relationship with Israel is the narrative we tell about Israel; how we see Israel. There’s a story about an elderly Jewish man in Miami who called his son in New York and said, “I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing; forty-five years of this misery is enough.” “Pop, what are you talking about?” the son screamed. Said the dad: “We can’t stand the sight of each other any longer. We’re sick of each other, and I’m sick of talking about this, so you can call your sister in Chicago and tell her.” And the father hung up. Frantic, the son called his sister, who exploded on the phone. “This is not happening!” she shouted. “I’ll take care of this.” She called her father immediately, and screamed at him, “You are NOT getting divorced. Don’t do a single thing until I get there. I’m calling my brother back, and we’ll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don’t do a thing, DO YOU HEAR ME?” and hung up. The old man hung up and called to his wife, “Okay, they’re coming for Yom Kippur. Now what do we tell them for Pesach?”

Yes, it is so easy, isn’t it, when there is an emergency in the family to come running? How quickly we are all mobilized when Israel is in trouble! This summer was a good example as Jewish solidarity was extremely high in the face of the constant bombardment of rockets that rained down on Israel, some reaching all the way to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and the discovery of so many threatening Gaza tunnels. However, a crisis mentality is not healthy in sustaining a relationship. At some point, we run out of holidays we can draw upon! Our connection with Israel needs to be built on something sturdier, more stable than fear and panic, and more spiritual than the goal of simple survival.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein explains in his recent book, The Chutzpah Imperative: Empowering Todays Jews for a Life that Matters, that emerging from the Holocaust trauma of the 20th century, Jews stopped asking questions. It was too painful, in the face of such a cataclysm, to probe too deeply into matters of faith or to question belief, purpose, meaning. Instead, perhaps to numb the pain, we poured all of our creative energies as a community into survival and continuity. We didn’t ask why or for what purpose. But in recent years, many, especially younger Jews, are asking, “Why be Jewish? Why marry Jewish? Why raise children Jewish?” Feinstein writes, “Their parents responded by reflexively citing the horrors of the Holocaust, but the kids turned away unmoved. The double negation–anti-antisemitism–is not a foundation for Jewish life. The parents sent the kids to Israel to witness the miracle of the reborn Jewish state. But the kids asked, Why Israel? What is this to me?” As this next generation of Jews is coming of age, Jews who never knew a world without an Israel, we will have to be able to answer these questions about the meaning of Israel for ourselves and the next generation, beyond “Red Alert! Red Alert! Don’t you know Israel won’t survive without us?!” It is in the process of exploring and answering these questions that a Jewish renaissance will begin.

Israel’s Shalom Hartman Institute is investing tremendous resources in crafting a compelling new narrative in a series of classes that will engage Jews today and help them create a newly-meaningful, personal relationship with Israel. The paradigm is one of a mature and healthy relationship that flows both ways. These stimulating Hartman courses, one of which we piloted last year here at Bet Haverim and another which I will be offering starting this fall, called the iEngage Project, respond to growing feelings of disenchantment with Israel. Hartman’s new narrative aims to “serve as a foundation for a new covenant between Israel and world Jewry, elevating the existing discourse from one with a crisis-based focus to one rooted in Jewish values and ideas…. Only a narrative that gives meaning to Jewish statehood and sovereignty and that articulates a vision of Israel that lives up to the highest standard of Jewish values, morality, and democracy can form the basis for a new covenant for Jews around the world.”  (from the iEngage website)

The third challenge that vexes Jews’ relationship with Israel is the nature of the conversations we are having as a Jewish community about the wolf and the lamb. Debates within our community have become fractious and acrimonious, threatening to tear the Jewish community apart. For our Jews who are trying to sort out their feelings about Israel and are searching for their own path to a connection with Israel, disrespectful and vitriolic disputes have at times driven our people away. Our Jewish brothers and sisters are left perplexed, wondering, if this relationship with Israel is so charged, so upsetting, perhaps it is not even worth investing my energies and passions to sort out where I fit in, how I might better connect with Israel.

So our third challenge is to learn to respect the unique and different ways of loving Israel. A Midrash is told by the rabbis in the Talmud (shita mekubetzet, menachot 37a) that there were once seven brothers who appeared before wise King Solomon with a dispute. Six brothers were normal, well, like you and me, they only had one head.  The seventh brother, on the other hand, had two heads. The two-headed brother wished to claim a double share of their father’s inheritance. The other brothers claimed each should receive only one share since each brother is one person. King Solomon told the two-headed brother that he had a plan to solve the dilemma.  The king ordered a pot of freezing cold water (and this was long before the ice bucket challenge!) to be poured on one of the heads of the two-headed brother. If the other head screams, the King pointed out, it indicates that both heads are part of one body, and he deserves only one equal share. If the other head does not scream, it indicates the two heads are separate bodies and he deserves two portions.  Surely, there was but one inheritance despite the brother having two heads!

The Jews around the world and in Israel are just like the two-headed brother:

wherever we find ourselves, we all share in the exact same inheritance. When one head hurts, the other feels the pain just as powerfully.  We can’t help it.  We are connected with each other, we share the same heart–Jews and Israel!  Because we are one, therefore, we must listen to each other and interact with one another with civility and respect. What hurts one of us hurts all of us. When as Jews, we display compassion towards each other in our conversations about Israel, we will in turn inspire others to engage with Israel. Our interactions need to move from threatening and divisive, to stimulating and life-giving. We all have the opportunity to demonstrate through our actions that there are many sincere and meaningful ways to express our love for Israel. In this kind of atmosphere, relationships with Israel can bloom in a wide variety of positive and nourishing ways. Together we can deepen our attachment to Israel and in so doing strengthen Israel and the Jewish people.

You might ask, so Rabbi, what can I do right away to enhance my relationship with Israel? First, there is nothing that can take the place of trip to experience Israel with your own eyes, in order to truly develop a personal relationship with the land and people of Israel. This, I promise you, will be one of the most fulfilling and powerful experiences that you can have in your Jewish life. So, whether you have never been to Israel before or it’s time for your next visit, I would like to invite you to join Julie and me next summer as we explore together the magic of Israel. We will tour the historical sites, meet the people who make Israel what it is today, experience the vitality of Israeli life and culture, and learn first hand about the challenges that face Israel. Please see the flyers on the table/in the hall. On November 18th at 7:30 pm, we will be having a special organizing meeting and lecture, open to all, with Danny Ehrlich, the lead educator from Keshet Israel, who is organizing our trip (talking about media coverage of Israel). Let me know if you are thinking of joining us.

Another very important thing that we can do in strengthening our relationship with Israel is to vote the ARZA slate in the upcoming World Zionist Organization elections, helping to create the Israel we’ve dreamt of, an Israeli society that fosters the Jewish values of justice, equality and pluralism. In January, all Jewish adults will have an opportunity to shape the soul of Israel through ARZA, the Zionist arm of the Reform Movement, in the upcoming World Zionist Organization elections as a part of the World Zionist Congress. Through your vote, beginning this January, you can help decide how hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent to support progressive Judaism in Israel. You will find postcards on the table with all the information you need to know to make a difference.

Finally, each of us can develop our relationship with Israel by studying and learning as much as we can. Join us for “The Tribes of Israel: A Shared Homeland for a Divided People, ” a Hartman class exploring the challenges of creating a Jewish and democratic modern State of Israel. You will also find a flyer about this class on the table/in the foyer.

Whether you travel with us to Israel, vote to shape the future of Israel or grapple with the issues facing Israel today (or all of these!) you will be engaging yourself more deeply with what makes Israel unique and precious.

We continue to hope and work for that day when the wolf will, indeed, lie down with the lamb. I see the promise of Israel along with her problems, and, as a champion and lover of Israel, I feel so proud to celebrate the blessings that an independent Jewish state has brought into our lives. The reality of Israel–built on the Jewish ideals of justice, self-determination, hope, freedom and equality for all–means that we are part of an exciting experiment. We aim to create a shining example of Jewish values put into practice in a thriving, modern country. But, we are not there yet. The only way we can get there is by working side by side, respectfully and passionately with one another and with Israel, to make our dreams a reality.

Ken y’hi ratzon