Rosh Hashanah 5775/2014

In 1967, during the Arab-Israeli Six Day War, I was eight years old.  Pretty young, for sure, but old enough to be conscious of the world around me, old enough to have real memories.  And I remember quite plainly the palpable fear for Israel’s very existence as its neighbors – Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon – all prepared to attack.  I remember the relief, the exuberance, and the pride of us American Jews at Israel’s swift victory as it not only pushed back its attackers, but also took the Golan Heights, the whole of the Sinai Peninsula, and the West Bank…. And I remember the tears of joy at the news that the Old City of Jerusalem was in Israeli hands.  Pictures of Israeli soldiers kissing the Wailing or Western Wall are still fresh in my mind – as is the Biblical verse I learned at that time: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither….”

The intensity of feeling was infectious, and I remember that I went down to our basement bookshelves, pulled out our giant Random House Atlas, and with a black magic marker in hand, drew in the new borders around the map of Israel.  Ever since that moment, I have been in love with Israel.  And ever since that moment, my relationship to Israel has been constantly evolving in complexity – as love often does.  Little did I – or any of us – know, 40 years on, what decades of occupation would bring to Israel and all her inhabitants.  These last few months, we have seen the latest manifestation in yet another conflict between Israel and Gaza (or perhaps I should say more accurately, between Israel and Hamas).

I want you to know right now that in the next few minutes, I might say something that you will disagree with or will offend you (if I haven’t already!) – even though I will not be presenting an analysis of the latest conflict between Israel and Gaza – or between Israel and the Palestinians in general.  I – like most rabbis of what one might call “non-homogenous” congregations when it comes to opinions about Israel (as if we could be homogenous about anything) – I know all too well what happens to rabbis who choose to talk about Israel from the pulpit.  If you don’t know, allow me to tell you that talking about Israel has become known as “the third rail” for pulpit rabbis, a kind of “sudden death” proposition.  So much so that Rabbi Eric Yoffie, past president of the Union of Reform Judaism, recently wrote an article called “Muzzled by the Minority”, on this very subject, with a picture on the first page of a rabbi with duct tape over his mouth.  So much so that organizations like the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Rabbis for Human Rights have been pleading for two years for more rabbis to speak out and openly about Israel.  So much so that rabbis all over the country have had Board members and congregants resign, or have been vilified by their area colleagues or local Federations, just for expressing an opinion that might be different from theirs.  An epidemic of silence, and maybe more insidious, of one-sidedness, of “I’m right and you’re wrong”, has been spreading for far too long within the Jewish community.  And this disturbs me almost as much as the conflict itself. 

So, my decision this year is to speak about Israel, despite knowing that no matter what I say, I risk touching that third rail, I risk touching raw nerves, hurting or angering some, while perhaps pleasing or validating others.  I’m very aware that each of us in this room has our own opinions about the situation in Israel, some overlapping in some areas, while diverging in others.  And each of us has feelings, often intense, no matter what our opinion may be.

Some of you may think that we must support Israel no matter what, and some of you may think that from our relatively safe vantage point of life in the United States, we have no right to question what Israel does.  Others of you may believe that questioning is not just our right, but our obligation as Jews – or even as citizens of the world.   Some of you may think the media is slanted toward the side of the Palestinians.  Others of you think the media is always on Israel’s side.  Some of you have relatives and friends in Israel and have made frequent visits there, or have sent your children there, and your relationship with Israel is personal.  Others of you have

never been to Israel, but still feel deeply connected to the Land – while yet others of you may feel little connection at all.

Some of you think that Israel went too far this last time in Gaza, that using the full force of its military might was wrong, that too many innocent lives have been sacrificed.  Others of you feel frustrated by the Israeli government’s continued building of settlements on the West Bank where the Palestinian Authority holds sway, but you have no patience for the situation in Hamas-controlled Gaza and support Israel’s actions there.  Some of you have long supported a two-state solution – and then, suddenly this summer, you saw the tunnels.  Not the ones from Egypt into Gaza, long-known to be smuggling in arms; but the tunnels from Gaza into Israel, just uncovered in this last conflict, clearly built for the purpose of attacking the nearby Israeli population.  And then you were not so sure that a two-state – or any other – solution can be found.  Chances are, for most of you, you find yourselves resolute in one moment, and confused in another.  And how could it not be so?  The situation is ever-changing, and the history of the region is enormously complex.

Then, no matter what your opinion, there are the feelings.  A sickening roller coaster ride of fear and anxiety; of grief, rage, or frustration; of anger and hurt; of compassion and profound sadness.  And most of all, of hope alternating with despair.

It is precisely for this reason that I feel compelled to speak – to honor and acknowledge this diversity of opinion, and this depth of feeling.  It is vital that we acknowledge our own and each other’s feelings no matter our divergent opinions.  It is not just shameful, but also dangerous that, of late, voices outside the circles of power in the Jewish community are too often being silenced.  In the media, in the halls of government, in congregations, on college campuses, and in Jewish institutions, there is far too often only one point of view tolerated, only one “party line” spoken.

That the Jewish community has different points of view on this or any other topic is a given.  We are b’nei Yisrael, the children of Israel, of Yisrael.  Yisrael means “the one who wrestles with God”, and we are the people who wrestle, who struggle, with ideas, with ourselves, with each other, and with God.  We inherited this name and this legacy from our ancient ancestor, Jacob, who wrestled with his own conscience all night long.  He came away limping, the story goes, but he came away with a new name and a new vision of life.  Like Jacob, we, too, must wrestle with our consciences and with each other, and we, too, may come away limping.  But, in the end, we will also come away with new ideas, thoughts, and feelings.  And we will come away more whole, as individuals and as a community.  We are b’nei Yisrael, the ones who wrestle, and we must carry on this legacy.  Because if we cannot hear each other, who are we?  Because if we cannot hear each other, how will we ever hear the Palestinians?

Now, I imagine you may be wondering where I stand on this conflict.  Naturally, I, too, have my own opinions and feelings, some of them passionate, some ambivalent.  You may wonder why I don’t condemn Israel more or praise Israel more; or defend the Palestinians more, or condemn them more.  For now, I can only tell you that I think it’s hard to answer without the constant “althoughs” or “buts” or “on the other hands”, because each conflict is different, because the situation in Gaza is not the same as the one on the West Bank, because Hamas is not the Palestinian Authority.  For now, I can only tell you that it’s so painful for me because I love Israel and I want her to be perfect – which I know is unfair.  For now, I can only tell you that while my head tries from moment to moment to discern where I stand, my heart breaks in anguish over the loss of life.  And not just in this latest conflict.  And not just literally over loss of life in numbers of dead.  My heart breaks over the generations now of Israelis and Palestinians who have grown up in a cycle of violence and grief, trauma and fear, and anger and hate.  [And I urge you to look at the websites I have provided for you in your Supplements today, especially the organization called Seeds of Peace, a camp where young Israelis and Palestinians are brought together each summer.]

But here’s the deal.  It’s not about what I think about Israel.  It’s about what you think, what our children think, what we teach them, and whether or not we teach them to think for themselves – and to think complexly.  You see, this is not so much a sermon about Israel as it is a prayer – a Prayer for Complexity; a Prayer for Nuance.  It is a prayer not to listen just to one side or another, but to be willing to hear all sides.  It is a prayer for dialogue, for making room for divergent opinions, for making room for confusion.  It is a prayer for making room for attempting to learn as best we can what’s going on, what Israelis and Palestinians think and feel and want; It is a prayer for making room for feelings – for others’ feelings and for sorting out our own.  It is a prayer for being willing to open our eyes as Hagar does in our Torah reading today and see that death is not the only way out.  It is a prayer for us; for the legacy of b’nei Yisrael, the ones who wrestle.  And, it is a prayer for understanding that the boundaries of truth are often blurry and changeable.  It is a Prayer for Nuance.  It is a Prayer for Peace.

I am your Rabbi, and really, what else can I offer you but this prayer?  Rabbi Ira Stone, one of the leading contemporary voices of the Mussar Movement, says that: “Prayer is me overhearing my neighbor. And by the way, [it is also] me being overheard by my neighbor…. At the same time I am crying out, I am also hearing the cry.”  And Rabbi Zoe Klein, whose father is an artist, teaches that in great prayer, like in a great painting, the lines breathe and blur so that, she says, “you are a little bit me and I am a little bit you and we are all a little bit God and everything breathes everything else.”

And so today, Rosh Hashanah, after this summer of our anguish, I offer you this Prayer for Nuance, where I am a little bit you and you are a little bit me and we are all a little bit God.  And when we cry out, may we hear the cry of our neighbor – the one sitting next to us, as well as the one across the globe.

Keyn yehi ratzon.  May it be so.  LeShana Tova.

Published in Rabbi Susan's Sermons on November 17, 2014