Rosh Hashana Day 2: Let’s Talk About Israel

Rosh Hashana Day 2 – 5782 – 2021

Shana tova, Good Yom Tov. This d’var Torah continues my High Holiday theme: Where Are We, How Did We Get Here, and What Do We Do Now.

Over the past several years, we have seen a frightening growth in antisemitism in the United States and in Europe. Never have we witnessed the mass attacks that occurred in synagogues in Pittsburgh, in Poway, California, and at a Chanuka gathering in Monsey, not all that far from here. These have been wakeup calls that remind us that so much has not changed when it comes to antisemitism and to hatred and bigotry of all types.

Oddly enough, at the same time, there has been a disturbing uptick in anti-Israel sentiment. It’s bad enough when it comes from some elected political leaders here and abroad. But what’s even more concerning is the sentiment that is coming from fellow Jews, particularly of the younger generation. 

For the record, the love of the land and people of Israel, and indeed the roots of what became known as Zionism in the late 19th century didn’t begin then. It began with the central figure of the Rosh Hashanah day 2 Torah reading, Abraham. In the aftermath of the akeda, the binding of Isaac, Abraham is told that his people, who will in the future become known as the people Israel, will become “numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore”. 

Throughout Abraham’s career and life, and repeated to his descendants, is the promise of the Land of Israel. Lech Lecha, Abraham is told, go forth for yourself to the land I will show you.  And this Torah portion occurs on Moriah, traditionally understood as what later became the Temple Mount, and today is part of the Al Aqsa complex in Jerusalem. And it ends in the Negev, the southern part of Israel, in the ancient city of Beer Sheva. 

In that land of Israel, the biblical chieftains led, followed by kings such as David and Solomon. It was in that land that the Hasmoneans and the later followers of Bar Kochba revolted against foreign domination. And it was a return to the land and to self-governance that was prayed for in prayers written as early as a few hundred years BCE, and recited over 2000 years. 

So when modern political Zionism emerged in the late 1800’s, it wasn’t out of a vacuum. It was out of a commitment for an indigenous people to enlarge its presence there once again, and to work toward taking Jewish values and mitzvot, many of them specific to how a Jewish state should work, and begin operationalizing a Jewish government for the first time in millennia. 

Over the past few years, to use the phrase I used in the first day of the holiday, we became stupid again. There is a deeply troubling tendency for Jewish people, and particularly some in the younger generation, to want to rewind the clock to 1880, and live Jewish lives that are untouched by modern Zionism or the State of Israel. These primarily young folks, are idealistic. They see an Israel that has been deadlocked in a process that, 20 years ago, seemed so promising, a process that was to have led to a lasting and just peace between peoples that share the land – Israel’s Jews, Israel’s Arabs, and the Palestinians. And they’re right, it has been frustrating.  In 1968, Professor Yishayahu Leibowitz of Hebrew University wrote that the capture of the West Bank a year earlier, if it would not lead to some sort of territorial solution, would change the very nature of the State of Israel. He was not wrong. Our brothers and sisters in Israel are locked in a bad situation. 

But the mistake of our idealists is that they look at the wrongs and the difficulties that have been locked in place and believe that by becoming 1880 Jews, all problems will be resolved. What they miss is that fact that the situation of the Jews in 1880 and their situation from that time until 1947 was untenable. And they miss the rise in antisemitism that is as frightening now as it was 140 years ago. 

We have a few battles that we must all fight together. I’ll lay them out for you:

  1. Love of Israel and Zionism, if you will, are part of the package that is contemporary Judaism. Period. The opposition that many in the Reform and Orthodox camps had to political Zionism in the late 19th and early 20th century is gone. And yes, the Holocaust was the last straw, but Israel likely would have become a reality even had that not occurred. And the rise in antisemitism across the globe is a reminder that, in addition to being a remarkable country and the only Jewish state in the world, it continues to be an insurance policy for all Jews living everywhere. An assurance that, whatever happens, we have a home to go to. 
  2. There is an obligation of hocheach tocheach, a mitzvah that says: when you see something being done that is just plain wrong, we are obligated to confront it vocally. But, as many rabbis point out, that mitzva, of confronting others who are going down a bad path, is predicated on a loving relationship with the person being criticized. We confront them out of love of a fellow human being, not as a disinterested outsider.  My friend and colleague, Rabbi Judy Cohen-Rosenberg once taught me a lesson that I remember many years later. She told me that she would sometimes get up in her congregation and criticize Israel for some of its policies. Then she realized:  When I criticize Israel, it’s a conversation within the family. But for so many of my community, there is not a loving relationship to Israel to base it on.  So yes, within the family of the Jewish people, there must be plenty of space to criticize violence that has occurred against Arabs and Palestinians, attacks against women wishing to pray according to their own practice at the Western Wall, and lack of equality between men and women in divorce laws. Israel is a young country, just over 70 years old. It still has a lot to work out.  But we begin from a place of love for the state and the people of Israel.
  3. Education, for ourselves, and for our children and grandchildren, is essential. Everyone should know the basic history of the Jewish people and of the state of Israel. I’m talking about videos that exist online through groups such as Open Dor Media, that take a factual and even-handed approach to where Israel came from and why it matters. I’m talking about reading Noa Tishby’s recent book on Israel, in which she describes, in a light and entertaining way, her family’s Israel journey and a deep knowledge of history and of international affairs. 

As I stated on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the year we begin, 5782 holds great opportunities and great threats. We need to get our house in order. The promise to Abraham is still valid today. May we all take action to assure the peace and security of the land and people of Israel, take the steps to educate those around us as to why Israel exists and must exist, and find constructive ways to encourage Israel towards becoming the beacon of light unto the nations that it was founded to be.

Shana Tova

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