The following was delivered on Yom Kippur morning, September 23, 2015 at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, CA. The video of the sermon is here.
Take a second, and think about the last time someone tried to set you up. It could have been for a romantic engagement, a business deal, or maybe it was just to have you meet a friend. They may have said, “Oh, you two have a lot in common. I’m sure you’ll just hit it off.” Now take a second and think about what was going on in your head when this happened. There probably was some nervousness, hesitation, maybe even a little anxiety, or maybe some excitement. But I’m guessing you also had this thought: “This had better be worth my time.”
In fact, I’ll bet some of you are thinking that right now.
I was set-up in eighth grade. She’s one of those that everyone has an opinion about, because everyone thinks they know her, but in reality, her true self is elusive and shrouded in complexity. I had known about her for a while, but when we first met, I knew there was going to be a special connection between us. She elevated my spirit like none other. Being in her presence made me a better person and actually deepened my connection to my history and my Jewishness. And she did something I didn’t think was possible: when conflict abounded, she gave me hope. When we parted that first time, all I could think about was when we could get together again. She really stuck with me.
As our relationship has grown and deepened, I have discovered that I’m not the only one who feels this way about her. In fact, I’m guessing that you, too, have a relationship with Israel.
You were probably set up the way I was: Israel is this wonderful place where they turned the desert green and they invented chat rooms and there are more Nobel laureats per capita than anywhere else in the world and did you know they invented Waze? Israel is our homeland. Israel represents the best of our ideals. The people of Israel are our people.
And this is how we often think about Israel: It has to be perfect. That thought in and of itself is fine, but it is antithetical to our values when we say, “It has to be perfect, and if your idea of Israel’s perfection is different from mine, you’re wrong.”
I want to pause for a second to explain what is happening: The Student Rabbi who has never preached about something controversial is bringing up a topic that could cost him substantial congregational good will, divide the community, and ruin your Yom Kippur. By sharing “my” Israel, I hope that I will elevate your Yom Kippur, unite our community, and have you join me on a journey of deepening our relationships with Israel. I’m guessing that even when I first said the word, “Israel,” you probably had a thought along the lines of, “okay, here we go…I know where I stand, thank you very much.”
What I am going to tell you is difficult. It is going to be difficult for me to say. It may be difficult to hear.
And that’s exactly why it is important to think about.
Yom Kippur is held in a different place in each of our hearts. And so, too, does Israel — each of us as Jews has a unique, special relationship. Some of you may feel an intense connection to Israel, some of you may feel a very minimal connection to Israel, some may consider the Prime Minister of Israel as the public face of all Jewry, and some of you may have been very disappointed with the racist tactics in the most recent election for Prime Minister.
And it is okay to feel such differences.
There ARE many voices when it comes to Israel. And it is natural for them to be in conflict. And it is also okay to engage in that struggle. Indeed, the word “Israel” has “struggle” baked into it. The Hebrew, yisra-el, means “one who struggles with God.” (Gen. 32:28) I will admit that I often do not feel a part of Am Yisrael — the People of Israel, the people who struggle with God — as much as a part of am yisra-yisrael — the people who struggle with the nation of Israel. I will also admit that, at times, the divide between the right and the left in the American Jewish community and in the Israeli community, exacerbates this struggle.
But there are many out there who will try to tell you otherwise. We’re up against a narrative that says, “If you’re struggling in your relationship with Israel, you don’t really care about Israel.” Too often, we let that fear win. Too often, we are too intimidated to speak up, so we say nothing. Too often, we are hesitant of our personal connection with Israel — that it’s not deep enough, that it is rooted in complex issues, that someone might feel differently, that it brings up a lot of emotions — so instead of leaning into and engaging with our Israeli issues and narratives in a safe way, we simply stay silent. We don’t make the effort to learn, and discuss, and embrace the differences among us. It is not enough to say, “Well, the Torah says this” or “I’m Jewish, so I believe that.”
Whereas 20th century Israel narratives were about the preservation of Jewish life, I argue that 21st century Israel narratives are about accepting the diversity in our narratives and finding places of mutuality and common ground.
YOUR narrative is YOUR story. No one else can tell your story as authentically as you. And you, alone, control your narrative. I want to tell you a bit of my own Israel narrative.
The year I started rabbinical school, Sarah and I lived in Israel. It was the first time I had been there for an extended period of time. And, fortunately, there was relative calm between Israel and her neighbors, which meant that Israelis were able to look inward. Sarah and I witnessed protests and rallies for domestic issues, such as the price of cottage cheese and the rising cost of raising a family. We saw Gilad Shalit come home, and in the joy and the palpable euphoria of our boy, our soldier coming home, I still had to grapple with the question, “How many released prisoners is one life worth?”
These past few summers, though, it has become harder and harder to tell my Israel story, my Israel narrative, particularly because it has become more and more complex. The war with Gaza last summer, and the debate surrounding this P5+1 deal with Iran, have made me thoughtfully reevaluate my Israel narrative. What is my connection to Israel today? Is my connection the mere engagement in the news of the day? Or is there something else, something deeper?
In asking myself those challenging questions, I was able to see how Israel plays an important role in my life and my Jewish identity. My connection to Israel today is about learning and thinking through its myriad complexities in order to elevate what I do here, with you, in this community. I felt a pain in my stomach just this weekend when my “Tzeva Adom, Red Alert” app told me that a rocket had been fired into Israel. I felt incredible anguish during last year’s war with Gaza as Palestinians were using human shields to hide their munitions-filled schools. But sometimes, I am not sure what to feel. For example, during the debate around the Iran deal, I struggled with whether I should support the agreement. At first I supported it. Then I was against it. I went back and forth on the deal almost daily, and sometimes hourly. In that uncertainty, I listened to both sides, I learned, I sought out resources.
Where before I might have publicly announced my position, in going through this process of reflection and learning, I realized that a cornerstone of my Israel narrative is about building community and bridging the gaps that divide us. Taking a side on this issue would have done neither of those things for this community. Instead, I encouraged healthy debate with a respectful tenor.
When the dust of this and other debates settles, my connection to Israel adds a spiritual depth to my engagement with Judaism and the Jewish People. Israel gives me hope — hope that we can make a better world. Israel is important for us today because, let’s face it, in our community full of differences, Israel gives us something to point to and say, “That’s ours.”
Having a connection to Israel and developing an Israel identity are integral parts to what it means to be a Jew. Indeed, when we consider what it means to be Jewish, the categories we use are God, Torah, and Israel.
To be a Jew means to connect to Medinat Yisrael, the state of Israel — a Jewish, sovereign, democratic state that, on its best days, lives out our shared Jewish values. To be a Jew means to connect to Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel — a small piece of land that is the spiritual, religious, and political birthplace of our people.
To be a Jew means to connect to Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, the Jewish people, wherever they live. When the rabbis of the Talmud say, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh b’zeh — all of Israel is responsible for one another,” (Shevuot 39a) they are imploring us to care about Am Yisrael, the people of Israel. Indeed, just as much as we need a homeland to exist in Israel for us, Israel needs us to be its partners all over the world, wherever we live.
So when things do get complex about Israel, and they always do, how do we make sense of these conflicts? How can we approach our understanding of history and current events in an intelligent and analytical way? What questions do we need to ask as we encounter differing perspectives? As I have developed my narrative, I have learned that these critical thinking skills are even more important. I will admit, it is daunting to dive in and swim in the sea of complexities. But it is sacred work. And it will pay dividends to your soul.
If your connection to Israel manifests itself not by debating the speed of snap-back sanctions in Iran, but by tearing up when you hear Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem, that is okay, too.
Yet, accepting the existence of nuance…I’m going to say that again because it’s maybe the most important point I will make…accepting the existence of nuance in your understanding of the people, culture, land, and state of Israel will add vibrancy to your relationship with Israel.
I hope that relationship did not stop developing when you finished Hebrew school. We should be empowered to continue that sophisticated relationship with Israel throughout our lives because as we gain life experience, we can engage each other in conversations about Israel with the goal of deepening all of our Israel narratives.
Coming to terms with Israel’s imperfections is not easy. But as we enter this New Year, let us commit to having the important, sometimes difficult, conversations about Israel without compromising our connection to and love for Israel. Let us commit to engaging with Israel within the shades of gray, rather than seeing only black and white. Let us commit to exploring our relationship with Israel, understanding that it is not perfect, but it is an important and essential element for us as Jewish Americans.
And let me commit that to you. Last night, when we sang Kol Nidrei, we let go of our vows from the previous year. This morning, my vow to you is this: This year, I will work with you and facilitate opportunities for you to deliberate, and affectively engage with Israel, so that you can create and adapt your Israel narrative. I vow to enfranchise you to create and deepen your relationship with Israel and provide the necessary resources for you to find meaning. Let your new voice, your new voice for Israel, rise.
I commit to you that I will lead as the Reform Movement led with the Iran deal: I am not going to tell you what to choose, but I will give you tools so that you can make your own choices.
And I ask that you do something, too: play a role in that relationship. Go out on a limb, reflect on your relationship with Israel, and participate in that conversation.
The first of our conversations will be happening this fall. Over the summer, I shot a documentary in Israel about Hatikvah. I went around the country and asked Israelis how they felt about the song, the words and the music. And we talked about the challenge it poses — Hatikvah speaks of a Jewish soul, but it is very difficult for 20% of the population who are not Jewish to feel a connection to those words. I asked them how they felt about including different words in the song. And then I showed them an alternative version of Hatikvah that uses more universal language. I don’t want to give away the whole film, so I hope you will join me on October 24 for the world premiere screening of “Hatikvah,” followed by facilitated discussion where you will have the chance to explore the same questions I posed to those in the film.
Look, I’m not going to try to sugar-coat this: developing an Israel narrative is hard. It’s difficult, and it may tap into something uncomfortable. You, too, may end up identifying with Am Yisra’Yisrael — the people who struggle with the state of Israel. But it can be done. And it can be done with compassion and kindness.
Think back to when I first said the word, “Israel.” What came up in your mind? Was it an issue of security? Was it an image of our Jewish homeland? I challenge you to explore what came to mind and take action. Maybe you will join us at the AIPAC policy conference or the JStreet convention. Maybe you will travel to Israel. Or maybe you will take a week and read the top article every morning on The Times of Israel and discuss it with a friend.
Yom Kippur is a time of teshuvah, repentance, forgiveness, turning over a new leaf. Indeed, in the words of Ashamnu, we list things we, individually and communally, have done wrong: “We scorn, we are cruel, we slander, we ridicule, we abuse, we are hostile, we are stubborn…” How often do those wrongs make their way into our conversations about Israel. “For all these failures of judgement and will,” let us commit to maintain a sense of acceptance and understanding. (Vidui Rabbah)
In Pirkei Avot, the teachings of our ancestors, Rabbi Akiva teaches us, “…[everyone] is given free will. But the world is judged in goodness, and all is according to the majority of deeds.” (Pirkei Avot 3:15) Keep that in mind as you develop your Israel story. Your story is yours alone — that’s your free will. But we are judged based on the majority of our actions, so please, engage in goodness and decency.
It’s been a long time since I was in 8th grade and first met Israel face to face. Take a second, and think about those closest to you. How were they introduced to you? Were they presented as being perfect? Now that you have known them for some time, how do you grapple with their imperfections? How do you overcome those challenges? We love who we love because they bring us joy and companionship and bring the best out in us. And it can be the same when it comes to our relationship with Israel.
And that is how we can bring about peace in our day.