My comments for the High Holy Days 5772 will consist of three sets of ideas. The first will be a particular, broad view of the contemporary state of Israel; the second will be a broad view about how we, as American Jews living in Brooklyn today can make change in the lives of ourselves and others in very practical ways; and the third set of ideas will revolve around the notion that the American Jewish in the present and future will increasingly center itself on ideas of pluralism, diversity of Jewish expression on the religious and cultural spectrum, and exemplify the "open-tent" values of both in-reach and out-reach. Welcoming guests into a deeper relationship with and understanding of Jewish life and civilization.
RH Sermon One
This hot, muggy September weather calls to mind one of the qualities I love about walking around Tel Aviv this time of year. In the way that the senses can transport one back in time to a place of meaning, tonight we find the atmosphere in which we welcome the New Year to be similar to a late summer night in Israel's largest city, where I went on several occasions recently, to try to understand the motivations and issues at play in the famous "tent-city" protests we've been reading about in the Israeli and American media. There gathered were young and old; from different nations of the broad Jewish world--Ashkenazi and Mizrachi; the Left, Center and Right of the Israeli political spectrum; and, in what may surprise people, Arab Israeli citizens as well--all united in the catchphrase of the movement for fair housing and decent wages, העם דורש צדק חברתי--the People Demand Social Justice.
In speaking to many of these individuals, it became abundantly clear that they were attempting to create a new narrative for the Israeli present that wasn't going to be bound by the tried and true dynamics of the frustratingly slow and dysfunctional, grim parameters of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That is to say, a narrative that turns people off; that eliminates hope; and that, despite occupying the world stage at the United Nations last week, knocking from the stage virtually any other world issue except this one--no small feat for two small peoples. I had this uneasy feeling last week when walking near the U.N.--a feeling that much of the world was thinking, "Can't you two guys figure out how to grow up and solve your problems? We all have to sit around and watch this argument again?"
Jewish guilt or self-conscious awareness? The world has a point.
And yet. And yet Israel's existential reality is at stake. It's miraculous existence after two-thousand years of Jewish exile is threatened on at least two fronts--a potentially destabilized Arab world, whose path forward is not yet clear in the wake of the Arab Spring; and what social scientists are debating as the "ticking time bomb" of Israeli demography: the dissolution of an Israeli population's majority in the Land of Israel due to rising Arab birthrates and steady Jewish birthrates. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, goes one argument, is in fact being played out on the stage of greater, broader, reality.
Since Zionism came into being in the late 19th century and argued that the Jewish people ought to return to its historical homeland en masse after a nearly two-thousand year exile, Land, Language and Nation were to be reunited as a statement of values about the future of the Jewish people. To revive and rescue a people, scattered throughout the Diaspora, through the revolutionary means of a re-born, modern Hebrew language; to re-claim and re-inhabit the ancient cities and towns of from which we were expelled; and to constitute a state like all other states, but ours to be deeply rooted in values of Jewish life and civilization. העם--the People--returning to their land is a shift of radical proportions. It would mean setting up economies and systems of government that would be explicit expressions of Jewish values culled from our sacred texts, our rich and diverse history, and the engagement with the countless cultures among which we have lived.
Similarly, our own congregation, nearing its 150th year of existence, came into being as an expression of American Jewish aspirations for redeeming the Jewish people here in America--not as a majority culture, however, but as a minority culture among many--e pluribus unum--from the many, one. Whereas in the broader context of American life, Jews would accommodate and adapt to a greater whole, Zionists were seeking a different values-based aspiration of being the majority culture that navigated the dynamic of minority cultures adapting to it.
As American Jews are forever conscious of the ways in which Judaism adapts itself to the values of the host nation in the Diaspora, Israeli Jews are forever conscious of the responsibility of what it means to be that host nation. Foreign workers in Tel Aviv; debates and negotiations between labor and business owners; the religious and cultural significance of a mandated "day of rest" each week; the national language of discourse; and the classical tropes of a people's narrative, from food to music to how we organize time: these are the parameters of Jewish responsibility. It should never cease to amaze us what has actually been accomplished in the past hundred years despite not resolving basic border and security issues with its neighbors.
What was particularly enlightening and inspiring about the tent-city protests this summer was the degree to which Israelis across the spectrum had gathered en masse--during the larger rallies a proportional equivalent in the United States would translate into a 10-12 million person rally (the greatest in our history)--as a statement of values. And not what people refer to as the stereotypical values of "survival" or a nation under threat; not the blood and sacrifice of past generations for our benefit; but something Old-New: העם דורש צדק חברתי--the People Demand Social Justice.
Justice--the word itself evocative of the call in Deuteronomy in which we are commanded to pursue the creation of our society as the Divine mandate for building a just society. Or, as social commentators might say today, a "return to Traditional Values."
It was greatly inspiring to walk the streets this summer in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; to hear the People debating their future; to see the citizenship not bury its head in despair over the border disputes that took center stage at the U.N. but instead to demand that the future would be redeemed by a return to Zionism's roots and reminding themselves that a nation founded on just values ought to return to those values from time to time in order to renew its covenant with its values, its history, its narrative, its God.
We were once at home and the Babylonians sent us into Exile. We were once at home and the Romans sent us into Exile. We were once at home and the Crusades sent us into Exile. But the late nineteenth and early twentieth century sought to overturn the assumptions of the prior two thousand years by returning the Jewish people not only to its Land and Language, but to its National Narrative of Values: העם דורש צדק חברתי--the People Demand Social Justice.
Whereas the classic trope had been righteous suffering in Exile, this new idea was meant to liberate us from a narrative that restricted our development as a People. Isaac willfully being bound to the altar, as we read in Torah passage for Rosh Hashanah is no more. Rather, the Sages offer a different view. When Abraham and Isaac and the two servants head toward Mount Moriah for the binding of Isaac, Abraham asks them what they see. "We see a vast desert, a wasteland; dry, hot, dangerous," say the servants. Isaac describes a mountain aglow with light, radiant with possibility and blessing. "You stay here," Abraham says to the servants. And he proceeds to the future with Isaac.
In this reading, the sacrifice of Isaac is not one of morose suffering but is an offering forward, a light onto the future, the fire of possibility.
Moses at the Burning Bush had a similar revelation; Akiva at the well, too, saw that nature bore truths that the more discerning minds could apprehend for the betterment of the self and the society; similarly, Isaac represents for us the ever-regenerating possibility of a Jewish future built on the values of Justice for All, in the same way that our American founders wrought such a vision for those seeking refuge and home on these shores as well.
This year I will lead a trip to Israel for our congregation and I invite you to join me at this critically important time for our people. I invite you to see first hand the amazing and heroic work being done on a daily basis in the Land of Israel--areas of conflict where peace is being made; areas of dislocation where healing is done; ancient and contemporary history; border crossings of dispute; art, culture and some of the best food you'll ever eat.
In all my adult years, I've only become increasingly convinced that those who stay away from Israel run the risk of drawing the conclusion that Abraham's servants drew--in seeing only a difficult desert, one misses the mountain aglow with light and possibility.
In this New Year, may we see possibility and blessing; fulfillment and peace.
לשנה של שלום