Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God,
For you have fallen because of your sin.
K’chu imachem d’varim
Take words with you
And return to the Lord.
Thus proclaimed the prophet Hosea, addressing the Jews of Northern Israel some 2800 years ago. Last Shabbat morning’s haftarah began with this same passage. K’chu imachem d’varim v’shuvu el Adonai – “Take words with you and return to the Lord.”
This phrase has been rattling around in my head all week, as I tried to find exactly the right words to begin tonight’s sermon. Because I believe – as we all do – in the power of words. Baruch she’amar v’haya ha-olam, we recite in our morning prayers. “Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came into being.” The Bible declares: Mavet v’hayyim b’yad halashon – “Death and life are dependant upon the tongue” [Proverbs 18:21].
What we say, and how we say it, matters. Words can create or destroy, build bridges or put up walls, clarify or obfuscate, incite or comfort.
The late, great Dr. Maya Angelou said: “Words are things. You must be careful, careful… Someday we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally into you.”
K’chu imachem d’varim
Take words with you.
Tonight I want to speak about Israel. I need to speak about Israel. I want us to be able to talk about Israel here in our community, and with others. But it’s hard.
According to a recent article in the New York Times, “many rabbis say it is impossible to have a civil conversation about Israel in their synagogues. Debate among Jews about Israel is nothing new, but some say the friction is now fire. Rabbis said in interviews that it may be too hot to touch” and so many are reluctant to speak about Israel at all.
“If they defend Israel,” wrote reporter Laurie Goodstein, “they risk alienating younger Jews who…are more detached from the Jewish state and organized Judaism. If they say anything critical of Israel, they risk angering the older, more conservative members who often are the larger donors and active volunteers.” [Sept. 22, 2014, “Talk of Israel and Gaza Goes From Debate to Wrath to Rage”]
These fears are not unfounded. Over the summer, some rabbis were called to task for their views on Israel; others were told not to address the subject of Israel from the pulpit; a few even lost their jobs.
But this isn’t just a problem for rabbis, is it? Last week, at the Rosh Hashanah table, one family member admitted he was afraid to talk to some lifelong friends about Israel. Mind you, these were Jewish friends, supporters of Israel. “I guess we’ll just avoid the subject,” he said.
K’chu imachem d’varim – Take words with you. This past summer, there were so many words: discussions and arguments, blog posts and newspaper articles and Facebook messages, accompanying the dreadful photos and videos. Israel and Gaza were all we could think about and our anxiety was heightened by the rise of anti-Semitic incidents in Europe and the vilification of Israel in the media.
Like so many of you, I felt anguished and torn apart by what was going on. The kidnapping of the three boys – Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah – followed by the discovery of their remains, and then the revenge murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, set the stage for a summer of tragedy. The growing hatred, fear and distrust were mitigated somewhat by the courageous words of Nafatali’s mother, Racheli who said:
“Even in the abyss of mourning for Gilad, Eyal, and Naftali, it is difficult for me to describe how distressed we are by the outrage committed in Jerusalem–the shedding of innocent blood in defiance of all morality, of the Torah, of the foundation of the lives of our boys and of all of us in this country. No mother or father should ever have to go through what we are going through, and we share the pain of Mohammed’s parents.”
But even as the families of the murdered Jewish and Arab teens consoled one another, the situation on the Gaza border was, it seemed inexorably, moving toward war. We watched, horrified, as rockets rained down on Southern Israel and beyond, and as Israeli firepower devastated Gaza in return. Our attention was especially fixated, once again, on children. Children in Israel, an entire generation, growing up in fear, running for shelter, their daily lives punctuated by sirens. Children in Gaza, being used as human shields by a so-called government who cared nothing about their safety or welfare.
And amid all the existential fear for Israel, the loss and suffering on both sides, questions loomed. When will this war end? When will there be a cease-fire that actually holds? And after that? What is the end-game? How had Israel come to this point of conflagration? Could anything have been done earlier? Why didn’t the IDF know about the tunnels? What other threats might loom inside and outside Israel’s borders? Why couldn’t the world recognize what Hamas was doing? Why was there such a high death toll in Gaza, and was it really all the fault of Hamas? What did the war accomplish? When would the next war begin? And would the cycle of violence ever come to an end?
This summer, as we absorbed the barrage of arguments, withstood the worldwide outrage at Israel, took in the pictures of soldiers’ funerals and Gaza rubble, words failed us. Running into one another at the supermarket and around town, we shrugged, embraced, and shook our heads. Ayn milim, goes the Hebrew saying. “There are no words.”
And yet there were – and continue to be – forceful and incendiary words being bandied about on all sides: Nazis, murderers, savages, war criminals, traitors, genocide. And accusations among ourselves as well: That those who voice any criticism of Israeli policies are Israel bashers; that those who worry about the security of Israel are insensitive to the plight of the Palestinians.
A couple of weeks ago, the Rabbinical Assembly set up a conference call with Frank Luntz, an American political consultant, pollster, and “public opinion guru” who grew up in West Hartford. [Wikipedia, s.v., “Frank Luntz”] One of his cardinal rules is: “It’s not what you say; it’s what people hear.”
For the past few years, Luntz has traveled to American college campuses to assess students’ beliefs about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He found that, following the summer, students’ favorable opinions about Israel had plummeted, but that they responded to questions differently, depending on the specific language used.
For instance, Luntz advises against using the word “Zionism” when speaking to students about Israel. Because this term has been demonized, it is now used only to demonize Israel. He also advises against linking Israel with discussions about anti-Semitism. These arguments, he says, will simply not be heard.
What do students and others respond to? Sentences that begin with the words “Everyone deserves…” as in “Everyone deserves a place to call home.” Or “Everyone deserves to live without fear.” He advises that we use phrases like “Imagine if…” He cautions us not to confuse the Palestinian people with Hamas, and stresses how important it is for the Jewish community to acknowledge the pain and suffering of the Palestinians, as well as their right to self-determination.
Luntz has found that the single most effective quote to use with college students is one by Barack Obama, affirming that “Israel has a right to defend itself.”
“No country” said the President, “can tolerate missiles raining down on its cities. No country’s people should live day-by-day rushing to bomb shelters every half hour. No country can or would tolerate tunnels dug under their land used to launch terrorist attacks. America has been – and will continue to be – supportive of Israel and its right to defend itself in concrete terms.”
All of these are what Frank Luntz calls “words that work.” Luntz is a lover of Israel; like most of you, including me, he is a Zionist (to use that unpopular term.) But he also a professional spin doctor. He uses words not only to illuminate, but also to manipulate. Remember where I began tonight? Kichu imachem d’varim – Take words with you… Use your words to return to Adonai.
So while it’s helpful to learn precisely what language to use when speaking to others about Israel, it’s not enough. We have to mean the words we say, take them to heart. If we speak of compassion, we must be compassionate; if we say we want peace, we must work toward peace; if we rightly claim that Israel is a democracy, that it is striving to become a better, more just society for all, then we must put our money and our efforts where our mouth is. Support the Masorti movement, New Israel Fund and other organizations which promote living up to Jewish and democratic values like justice, respect, dignity and religious freedom for all its citizens.
As Maya Angelou said: “Words are things.”
Speaking effectively about Israel requires that we speak civilly not only to others, but to our fellow Jews. It requires us listen, to acknowledge that those who love Israel do not always agree, that there are nuances and uncertainties and legitimate competing values. Yossi Klein Halevi, author of the book “Like Dreamers,” wrote earlier this month:
“…The Jewish fanatics of the far right and the far left — those who have a ready answer to all our dilemmas and who contribute, each in their own way, to Israel’s isolation – are a minority. Most Jews instinctively know that to be a Jew means to balance paradoxes – security and morality, realism and vision, particularism and universalism, self-defense and self-critique.”
He continues: “Most Jews share the same hope – of a strong Israel at peace with its neighbors. We will continue to argue about the best way to achieve that, but as partners – aware that there are no easy answers, that none of us can speak for the totality of Jewish wisdom, that we need each other’s insights to be a whole people…” [“At Rosh Hashanah: Grief, Fear, Hope,” by Yossi Klein Halevi | The Blogs | The Times of Israel]
As many of you know, on June 17, 2014, my daughter, Penina, made Aliyah. She did not move because she felt discriminated against or unhappy here; she is a proud dual citizen of the US and Israel, who will soon enter the IDF.
Penina arrived in Israel just in time for this summer’s war. She responded to sirens, worried about her friends who were in harm’s way, sent packages to soldiers, and mourned the deaths in Israel and Gaza. She made the best of things, worked and went out with friends, always being sure to check on the location of the closest shelter.
In a blog posting for the Times of Israel, an online daily paper, Penina reflected on her decision to make Aliyah:
“I knew I wanted to make this place my permanent home as soon as possible,” she wrote. “I felt something within me that said I didn’t want to just visit this country; I wanted to be a part of it. I couldn’t wait to finally call myself an Israeli. To walk through the streets lined with Hebrew signs, to see religious and non-religious sit together on the bus and argue, to eat Mediterranean food and contemplate my identity within the context of the Jewish land.”
“…As things started to move in the direction of war, it hit me that this would be the first time I had an intimate connection to the dangers of the wars in Israel. As a child growing up with the news of the Second Intifada, I knew that there were risks to living in Israel, and I knew that the people of Israel lose so many loved ones during the many wars Israel has faced, and I saw the pain Israel has gone through. But I never truly knew what it was to send those I knew and loved into war until now… I feel the intimate fear that comes with Israel going to war. I stand with Israel firmly, but feel so critical of many of our government’s decisions. More than ever, I feel at odds with myself on the matter. [Yet], for better or for worse, it’s been the right introduction to being Israeli.” [www.timesofisrael.com 9/28/2014 An Israeli Introduction | Penina Beede | The Blogs | The Times of Israel]
Last week, a cousin of mine lamented the fact that young American Jews have no sense of history when it comes to Israel. I pointed out to her that most Americans lack a sense of history in general. But, she wondered, if they don’t understand the Holocaust, the history of Zionism, the story of Israel’s founding and its struggles, how will they ever feel connected?
My answer is that young people will feel connected when they go to Israel – whether on Birthright or some other program – and experience the vibrancy of Israeli culture, the beauty of the land, the rhythms of Shabbat, when they meet young Israelis and become friends, when they start listening to Israeli music, when their Facebook feed is partly in Hebrew, when they take part in Israeli social justice efforts, when they can’t wait to plan their next trip: in short, when Israel becomes real and personal.
For most of us, Israel is already personal. The medieval poet, Yehuda Halevi, wrote: “Libi ba-mizrach va’ani b’sof ma’arav – My heart is in the East and I am in the ends of the West.” Our hearts are there, in good times and bad. Our hearts are in Israel, in the amazing creative laboratory of the Jewish people.
Kichu imachem d’varim – Take words with you… Use your words to return. Yom Kippur is a time for heshbon hanefesh, self-reflection, for us as individuals and as a community. In a short time we will chant the vidui, the long litany of sins which is repeated over and over – ten times! – during this Day of Atonement. So many of those sins – five in the Ashamnu and 12 in the Al Cheyt confessions – are sins rooted in speech.
Because words are powerful things.
So let us reflect on our words this Yom Kippur. How will we use them to talk about Israel? How will our words help create understanding rather than divisiveness? How will we choose our words carefully and thoughtfully? How will we use our words to heal rather than attack?
Yehuda Kurtzer, Director of the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, notes how extraordinary is this moment in which we find ourselves: “The Jewish people, thanks to the gift of the State of Israel, are engaged in a conversation truly not possible before 1948: a conversation about what Jewishness should mean inside and outside a sovereign framework, and one that is not just about aspirations and ideals but is tested on a daily basis, a conversation about ideals with implications for realities.” [hartman.org.il/Blogs_ 4/22/2012]
Tonight, I invite all of us to join in that passionate conversation.
May we strive to use “words that work.”
May we be unashamed to express our love for Israel.
May we be equally loving when we criticize her.
May we rejoice in Israel’s accomplishments, without denigrating others.
May we mean what we say.
May we listen more than we speak.
May our disagreements always be, in the spirit of Hillel and Shammai, machlokot l’shem Shamayim, arguments for the sake of Heaven.
May our words create more light than heat, more hope than despair.
May our words and deeds help bring peace.
And let us say: Amen.