Temple Adat Elohim
You are here:Home > About Us > Our Clergy > High Holiday Sermon Archive > Erev Rosh Hashanah, 1 Tishrei 5772

A New Relationship With Israel

By Rabbi Ted Riter, Erev Rosh Hashanah September 28, 2011 ~ 1 Tishrei 5772
On June 25, 2006, Corey and I were leading a Temple trip to Israel. On this day we traveled from Tel Aviv north through the Galilee and Golan, toured Bet Alpha (a synagogue dating back to the 6th century), took a boat ride on the Kineret, the Sea of Galilee, and spent the night on a kibbutz. On this same day, while we explored the northern part of Israel, Hamas terrorists in the South crossed the border into Israel and kidnapped Gilad Shalit. The International Red Cross and human rights agencies have been denied visits with Gilad. And now, over 5 years later, we still know very little about his location, his condition, or even if he is still alive. Last year his mother Aviva wrote these words:
"This is my son; the first life that I created. Part of my body my soul and my love. I heard his voice for 20 years. From the moment he arrived in this world to our last telephone conversation: "Mom, I am returning home, can you hear me?" I heard his voice as clearly as I heard his first cry as a baby. I can still hear his cry at night when he was a child. You never gave me peace to sleep at night. I used to lie next to you pacifying you. . . .
When you received your first call up papers to the army, my heart skipped a few beats. You were only 17 years old. You came back very proud and happy with big bright shiney eyes. I wished that you would not have to go to combat and that you would not get called to a dangerous zone. You just wanted to protect your country.
It is not the country that raised you, it is Me, I who raised you. The day that you shut the door behind you and you traveled to do your army service, I counted the days till you would return home.
I decided then and there that I would go to Shul and to thank G-d and ask him to return my son to me safely. . . . The day that I heard loud knocking on the front door, I knew something was terribly wrong.
I opened the door praying that I would not see what I saw. Two uniformed army personnel and an army medic. One was your commander and he held my hand tightly. I did not have to hear the words he was telling me. The darkness cut the blood supply from my veins in my arm and I understood that something was terribly wrong. In the news they show your photographs. I go to Shul and I pray.
I pray all the time, even when I am sleeping, I am praying. This is my son, my son who was snatched into Gaza. My son who might never return."
Israel and the Middle East are never far from the front page of our newspapers. Over the past few months especially, we have been flooded with stories of the Arab Spring and the latest Palestinian and Israeli moves at the United Nations. Though we could spend some time this evening talking about history and politics, I would like to focus on a deeper level – our relationship with Israel and even more so, our relationship with Israelis.
For years this topic has been the sacred cow of the Jewish community or perhaps even the elephant in the room. Whichever animal catch phrase we apply, I believe it is time to address this seminal moment for the Jewish community because it is at this moment with threats from Iran, unknown futures with newly revolutionized Arab governments, and challenges of Palestinian statehood, that we are recognizing the polarizing American Jewish community. We no longer speak with one unified voice. We no longer stand united on domestic policy, foreign policy, and certainly not Israel policy. And meanwhile, Gilad Shalit and his mother are longing to hear our voices.
Let me first frame our relationship as I see it.
For two thousand years, we understood our lives as Jews to be in exile from the land of Israel. In this world view, we felt that we were at risk, that we were unwelcome in our temporary lands and that there must be something better out there. The “out there” was a return to “The Land”, our homeland, the Promised Land, the Land of Israel. When this dream became a reality in 1948, we idealized this small strip of land. We joyfully danced to Israeli folk music, we proudly celebrated the pioneering spirit, and we even bravely tried this strange pasty concoction made from chickpeas. Everything Israel was good -- no great! And everything else, was endangered. We knew that Jews around the world were just one governmental leader’s speech away from a Russian-style pogrom. We felt safe for the moment in the United States, but we also knew our parents and grandparents felt pretty safe and accepted in Germany in the 1930s. Israel was our safety net.
For much of Israel’s 63 year history, we also felt like they needed us. And, we responded. We were going to fund Israel. We were going to make sure that this utopian society had the schools, ambulances and safety that it needed. We dutifully bought Israel bonds and planted trees. We embraced their leaders and spread the good message of the only democracy in the Middle East.
This relationship worked for many years and it got us to where we are. In fact, as an ardent Zionist, it was this relationship that I first embraced. But, this relationship with Israel is no longer working. This should not be a surprise. Ultimately, if everything is understood as either all good (Israel) or all endangered (diaspora) we are not in a healthy relationship. Such a two-dimensional relationship of any type – with friends, work, or Israel -- cannot be sustained.
Let’s think in terms of our own lives. If we can only view ourselves as flawed, we shrivel into nothingness. And, if we are constantly comparing ourselves to the perfect “other,” or idolizing the other . . . we are not in a healthy place.
There is another reason that this two-dimensional model cannot last. Eventually, even those of us with a real love for Israel, see through it.
Now this may be a generational, denominational or even geographical issue. Certainly there are many of us who have spent a lifetime advocating for Israel. We continue to see only the beauty and promise of this holy land. But studies show this is not the case for many non-Orthodox Jews in America today. We’ve seen the news reports and read the books and we see Israel as a country that is not yet a light unto the nations. Perhaps also, we no longer see a need for a safety net. We therefore no longer feel compelled to support every move Israel makes. We might speak out privately and even publicly on the ills of Israeli society and government.
Who can blame us? Sitting here in the beautiful Conejo Valley, it’s hard to hold on to the precariousness that we are supposed to feel in the Diaspora. We support or do not support our elected leaders. But . . . fear them because of our Judaism? Exile? These concepts do not speak to most of us. Even our grandparents saw this country as the Goldene Medina, the “Golden Country,” the new Promised Land. As for the safety of other Jews around the world . . . we typically feel that we have more in common with our Christian next door neighbors than Jews living on other continents. If they do not feel safe, they should fix things or move. These are perhaps harsh answers, but I do not think they are too far off from how many are feeling in the United States today.
At the same time, whether yesterday because of the announcement of more settlement building or 30 years ago with the massacre at Sabra and Shatila, we realize that Israel is not perfect. We discover that Israel is not always living up to the Jewish ideals of “loving our neighbor,” or “doing unto others.” Just look at the newspapers this week: Ongoing conflict with Palestinians, social woes dramatized by the tent cities in Tel Aviv, new gender-segregated beaches at the Dead Sea.
To this new realization of the imperfection of Israel, we respond in a very human fashion. Some of us decide to overlook the shortcomings or whitewash the red marks. We are perhaps the ones who immediately forward all of the videos and chain emails about Israel’s accomplishment, which really are remarkable: more home computers per capita, more museums per capita, more books per capita; a booming economy, a fertile ground for technological advances, a blossoming art scene.
On the other side, some of us decide that we are finished blindly supporting Israel’s government. We quietly cheer the flotillas, we privately or even publicly support efforts to boycott, divest or establish sanctions against Israel. Some of us simply give up. “It’s never going to change.” “Let them all do what they want.”
Such a black and white approach to Israel may sound absurd. But, it is not so different than other relationships we sometimes have. Our first love; everything is just amazing. And, when something sends up a red flag, we either excuse it away or run the other way. Our relationship with God. We are taught that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present. Then we have an experience that challenges this ideal and we either cling more strongly or cast away our beliefs altogether.
If we are no longer feeling like we are in exile and we are no longer believing in Israel as a utopia, perhaps it is time to rethink our relationship. It’s time for our relationship to evolve, to mature. With our parents, we typically move from a childhood adoration, to a teen repulsion, and finally to a mature appreciation. What would this look like for us; to be in a mutually loving relationship with Israel, warts and all?
As a committed Zionist and supporter of Israel, I think this relationship needs to be seen in three-dimensional terms, rather than the two-dimensional black and white to which we have become accustomed. I believe we need to see each other as equals, invest in each other, and get to know each other as people, not just labels.
Let’s pull this apart dimension by dimension. The first dimension is a recognition and celebration that today we have two unique and vibrant Jewish world centers. Never before have we lived in a world like this. We have Israel, where Judaism is the fabric of everyday life; where the values of our tradition are codified into civil law, where the public calendar is in sync with the Jewish calendar, where Judaism is the very air they breathe. We see Judaism growing and developing as Israelis continue to define their own character, exploring what it means to live in sovereignty, to build skyscrapers next to antiquities, to bring our ancient language to life in decidedly modern ways.
And in the United States, we have the second world Jewish center. Certainly there are Jews in other countries, but 85% of the world’s 13 million Jews are split evenly between Israel and the United States. We find ourselves living not in the Diaspora as exile, but rather in the land of our choosing. We have experienced a flourishing of Jewish pluralism in this democracy, a creativity unfettered by religious or civil law, an acceptance and even welcoming into all layers of American society.
For our relationship to mature with Israel, we must realize that living in either center of Judaism is a valid choice and that these two distinct Jewish experiences can create a synergy together that enhances both simultaneously.
I believe that the second dimension of this new relationship requires cross-directional investment. For the past 100 years we have been sending billions of dollars of own money and later our government’s money to Israel. It seems that most every neighborhood or small town there has a gym, school, clinic or memorial named for an American philanthropist. The last I heard, they still even have ambulances driving around with our synagogue’s name emblazoned on the side. We should continue investing in Israel . . . and Israel should start investing in us. It’s time to see Israeli names on some of our programs and institutions.
I believe that the third dimension of this new relationship is built upon open dialogue. We need to be able to speak openly and honestly with each other about topics that really matter. We need to understand what it is really like to live in Israel. And, not just what it is like to have a bomb shelter or serve in the army. We need to know what it is like to walk through driver-less streets on Rosh Hashanah, to be wished a Shanah Tovah by the grocery clerk. And Israelis too should learn what it is like to be a Jew in the United States. Many would love to come live here or at least to visit, but this is generally for the myth of the United States or tourist spots and has nothing to do with Judaism. They should experience non-Orthodoxy – equality of women, musical instruments, an embracing Judaism!
The director of the Leo Baeck High School in Haifa came to see me in the Spring as part of his fundraising trip to the States. He asked me how focused we were on Israel at Temple Adat Elohim. I told him about some of our educational and advocacy efforts and then very politely asked him how focused Israelis are on American Jews. He instinctively replied that they pay close attention to what goes on in the US. But when I pushed him a bit further, he admitted that their discussion of American Jews was primarily for the financial and political support that we could give and not for our general well being nor to learn anything about how we practice Judaism. If we are going to build a new dynamic relationship with Israel, we need to get to the place where we are investing both financially and emotionally in each other.
When we get to that place, a higher level of relationship; when we see each other as equals, as individuals, as family; when we see each other without the blinders of absolutes; when we connect in a more meaningful way; then, it is my hope, it will not take us five years to raise awareness for one of our own who has been kidnapped. A mother’s tears in Israel will be our tears in the United States. A celebration of religious freedoms in the Conejo Valley will be a celebration of religious freedoms in Jerusalem. A blessing for one Jew will be a blessing for all Jews. And together, truly as one people, we will welcome the new year.
L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu
(Your shopping cart is empty)