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Yom Chamishi, 11 Iyyar 5778

 

Israel -- Kol Nidrey 5778/2017

 

    Shiru lanu mi-shirey Tziyon!  Eych nashir al admat neychar?

 

By the rivers of Babylon,

there we sat,

and we wept,

remembering Zion. 

On willows in her midst

we hung up our instruments;

for our captors there asked us for songs,

and our tormentors, for amusement:

“Sing us one of the Songs of Zion.” 

How can we sing one of Adonai’s songs

on foreign territory? 

If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget;

let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth

if I don’t think about you,

if I don’t hold Jerusalem

higher than my greatest joy.[1]

This was a song of exiles; a poem written by someone longing for home and for a life they would never see again.  It’s about 2600 years old.

The following words were written in 2009, recorded by poet Warsan Shire — British-raised, Kenyan-born to Somali parents — after she visited with refugees from Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, and Congo in a deportation center.  One person said:

When I meet others like me I recognise the longing, the missing, the memory of ash on their faces. No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark. I’ve been carrying the old anthem in my mouth for so long that there’s no space for another song, another tongue or another language. … I’m bloated with language I can’t afford to forget.[2]

“'Sing us one of the Songs of Zion.' How can we sing one of Adonai’s songs on foreign territory?"

The knowledge of exile is built into Judaism.  From slavery in Egypt to the Waters of Babylon, we have felt what it was to be an outsider.  Since the Roman 10th Legion suppressed the Judean Revolt and destroyed the Second Temple nearly 2 millenia ago, Jews around the world have described themselves as living in Galut — in Exile or Diaspora.  We have been strangers, outsiders, immigrants: sometimes welcomed and well-integrated, other times segregated and under pressure, periodically made the scapegoat.  (A word which comes from the ancient ritual for Yom Kippur, when the sins of the nation were symbolically sent into the wilderness on the head of a goat.)  However much we were at home in our host countries, we didn’t entirely belong.  Jewish separateness was usually also enforced by laws which treated Jews differently than members of the majority culture.  Sometimes the laws restricted where we could live and what jobs we could work at. Sometimes they required us to wear identifying clothing or pay a special tax.  Not until modernity did we have the privilege of being governed by the same laws as our non-Jewish neighbors.

Torah teaches us “Avadim hayinu l’Far’o b’Mitzrayim: We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.”  It commands us:

V’chi yagur it’cha ger b’ar-tz’chem…

“When a stranger” — an outsider, an immigrant, a non-Jew: someone not from your tribe or your culture, someone whose family probably speaks or recently spoke a different language.  “When an outsider resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong them.  The outsider who lives with you shall be to you like one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am your Eternal God.”[3]

Mitzvot regarding fair treatment of the stranger appear in 4 of the 5 books of the Torah.  They are fundamental to the Jewish understanding of who we are and how we are supposed to act: Do not use the power of being the majority culture to oppress the minority, because you know what that’s like.

The Book of Deuteronomy sets the bar even higher:  Tzedek, tzedek tirtof.  “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”[4]   It is not enough simply to love and avoid wronging the “other”; we must actively seek justice.  The context makes it even clearer:

You shall appoint judges and officials for your tribes, in all the inhabited areas that your Eternal God is giving you, and they shall judge the nation with courts of justice.  …  Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you may live, and keep the land as your heritage.[5]

Deuteronomy bluntly declares that administering justice is a basic requirement for thriving as a nation and maintaining a healthy connection between people and place.  In the world of power and politics, Jewish ethics teach:  Justice is something we must go out of our way to implement, and power must not be abused against the vulnerable. 

A favorite example:  About 3,000 years ago, when David became King over all the tribes of B’ney Yisra’el, the Israelites, he captured the independent city of Jerusalem held by the Canaanite tribe of Y’voos, and moved his capital there.[6]  After he had been king for some years, he received a prophecy directing him to make an offering on the threshing floor of one Aravna, a Y’vusi — that is, one of the original inhabitants.  King David went to Aravna and announced that he had come to buy the land in order to build an altar.  Aravna offered to give him both land and cattle, but the King refused, saying, “No, I will buy them from you at a proper price.”[7] 

The victorious monarch could have exercised eminent domain, but he did not.  He respected personal property rights, and treated the vanquished on the same footing as the victor. 

Beginning with the time of King David, the ancient Israelites had nearly a thousand years to work on putting this ethical stance into practice.  But during Galut, the Diaspora of the past two millenia, Jewish political power existed only inside the bounds of local Jewish communities.   In much the same way that Native American tribes have internal sovereignty, and tribal government has a direct relationship with the US government, so Jews in the countries where they were scattered had an internal self-government that dealt directly with the ruler of the host country.  

And then, in 1948, there was once again a self-governing majority-Jewish population in that same land King David governed.   And suddenly all the issues which had remained largely theoretical over the past 2000 years, issues of power and responsibility, the ethical treatment of minorities and the need for secure and defensible borders, became practical realities that had to be dealt with.

If you love Israel, this will be a difficult topic to listen to.  If you are appalled by Israel, this will be a difficult topic to listen to.  To quote Tikkun Magazine’s Passover Supplement from earlier this year, the issue of Israel and Palestine generates “apparently irreconcilable opinions and passions in the Jewish community as well as outside.”

So why bring up such a divisive issue on Yom Kippur?  Two answers:  Jewish community, and Jewish continuity

The deep differences in how we think and feel about Israel and Palestine make it too easy to disrespect and dismiss the “other side.”  If we don’t find ways to bridge our differences, we risk alienating portions of the Jewish community from each other.

That’s community.  Now continuity: If we don’t talk about Palestine and Israel honestly, we risk alienating the next generation of American Jews from the Jewish community entirely.  …You are activists, my friends.  You embody that passionate sense of justice that motivated our Torah, our prophets, and many in this room.  You call us to be true to Jewish values and ideals, to apply our ethics precisely when it is most difficult to do so.  You will not permit us to love Israel uncritically; and you won’t be part of a Jewish community that excuses cruel, abusive, or oppressive behavior, even toward people whom we feel we have ample reason to fear.

On Yom Kippur we look deep into our souls, seeking to hold ourselves to the highest standards.  This day declares that we need not be limited by the past.  We remember and honor and learn from our past; but we cannot let it dictate our future. 

Rabbi Hillel said:  Im eyn ani li, mi li?  If I don’t take care of myself, who will?[8]

For those of you who were raised, as I was, with the Socialist and agricultural ideals of the chalutzim, the mostly European Jewish pioneers of the early 20th century; who know that Israel was a refuge for hundreds of thousands of survivors of the Sho’ah, the Holocaust, and feel safer knowing that if it ever happens again, we will have somewhere to flee that will automatically take us in; who marvel at the re-establishment of Hebrew as a language of daily life after hundreds of years of being used only for prayer and study, and take pride in the power of Jews to defend ourselves:   The realities of Occupation will break your heart.  For the past 50 years Israel has held Palestinians as non-citizens, without due process, free movement, or the right to vote for the government that controls their lives.[9]   It is terribly painful to see Israel’s failure to embody the highest values of the Jewish tradition. I have seen, and my heart has been broken. It hurts badly to acknowledge our own people as perpetrators of unnecessary violence.[10] 

It cannot be explained away as “security needs.”  Nor are these reports manufactured or merely taken out of context by “enemies of Israel” or “antisemites dressed up as antiZionists.”  The often-grim realities of Palestinian life in the territories are well-documented by Israeli, Jewish organizations:  B’tselem, Rabbis for Human Rights, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel; and perhaps most powerfully, the organization of former IDF soldiers, “Breaking the Silence.”

If you love Israel, reading their reports is an awful experience.  But not knowing will not lead to a better future.   It is important to make time and space for grief, and for understanding.  This is one of the things I hope to do this year at Berith Sholom.

Im eyn ani li, mi li? 

Uch-she’ani li’atsmi, mah ani?

If I don’t take care of myself, who will? 

But when my self-care morphs into self-centeredness, what have I become?

For those of you whose whose Jewish memory of being “strangers in a strange land” brings you to identify with the Palestinian people; whose commitment to pursuing justice demands that you recognize and work to end the everyday oppression of Palestinians living under Israeli Occupation:   You are probably appalled, as I am, by the refusal of portions of American and Israeli Jewish communities to acknowledge or prioritize the injustice that accompanies Occupation.  In the face of Israel’s vastly superior power, it may be hard for you to credit the trauma of Israelis along with that of Palestinians. If you see Ashkenazi Jews as protected by White Privilege, you may not understand the fear of antisemitismitic violence that many Jews still feel deeply —  though Charlottesville may have clarified that a little.

You may be uncomfortable with the concept of a “majority Jewish country” that privileges one ethnic group over others.  But as a recent opinion piece in “The Forward” reminds us: 

Israel is not the only country on earth to face a tension between its desire to protect and nurture one ethno-religious community and its commitment to provide equality under the law.  Many European democracies have immigration policies that favor a dominant ethnic group.  Many have crosses on their flags….

Our goal should be to minimize the tension between Jewish statehood and liberal democracy as much as possible, while acknowledging that you can never erase it entirely….[11]

 

V’im lo achshav, ey-matai???  And if not now, when? 

I think the need to address Israel and Palestine has come to the forefront for me particularly as the next generation of Berith Sholom leaders has stepped up.  While differences in perspective do not entirely follow generational lines, they play a part.  Both Jewish community and Jewish continuity demand that we find ways to be respectful with each other across disagreement.  Please let me know if you will help me plan educational events at Berith Sholom this cominng year.

We are supported in this difficult communal work by shared commitments to Jewish values:

We share an APPRECIATION FOR WHAT JEWISH TRADITION HAS TO OFFER.  We are not “prisoners of the 21st century”; we have literally millenia of stories, teachings, and experience to draw from.  The fact that you are here today tells me that you recognize that Jewish tradition is relevant to modern life.

We share a SENSE OF JUSTICE and a commitment to implementing it.  “Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you may live, and keep the land as your heritage.”[12]

We share a commitment to DEFENDING THE VULNERABLE, even when we disagree about who is at risk:  “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”[13]

We share a commitment to PEACE.  Our Bible declares, “Seek peace and pursue it.”[14]

We share a COMMITMENT TO TIKKUN OLAM: To activism in its many forms.  Peace and justice are things we run after.  We do not sit back waiting for God to fix the world, we roll up our sleeves and jump in as God’s partner.

We share a belief in THE POWER OF INTROSPECTION in fostering personal and communal change.  This is why we read the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur: Jonah’s message to the people of Ninevah prompted them to assess and change their own behavior, and in doing so they changed the course of their future.

If you should say to me, “It’s all very well and good for the Jewish community to do this work, but what about the Palestinians?”  I would answer:  It is not our job to be Jonah to the Palestinian people.  Whether or not the Palestinian people do their own internal work is up to them.  Our job is to be Jonah to our own community, or rather communities: To push us to be the best we can possibly be.

The most important Jewish prayer is not addressed to God, but to ourselves:  Sh’ma, Yisrael!  Hey Jews!  Hey Yisra’el!  Sh’ma!  LISTEN, and pay attention to Echad: the Oneness at the heart of all things; the Oneness of the human family. 

The second paragraph of Sh’ma takes it a step further.  V’hayah im shamoa tishma: “If you really, really listen … I will bless your land.  But if you don’t, then you will perish quickly off the good land that Adonai is giving you.”[15]

This kind of “really really” listening, in order to understand where the Other is coming from, is as much needed in the United States right now as it is needed in the Jewish community, in Israel, and in Palestine.  Deep listening is an indispensable part of bringing blessing to the land. It is basic to staying grounded, to being rooted in what is. 

When we take the Torah out, we sing Al shloshah d’varim ha-olam omed: The world stands on 3 things, Torah and worship and deeds of lovingkindness.  But there is another “3 things” that one of our ancient rabbis said the world stands upon: on Justice, on Truth, and on Peace.[16]  May we unite our commitment to Justice with the courage to seek Truth, in order to bring Peace.

 

If you should ask: Why title the sermon "Israel"?  -- it's because I'm talking to Jews about Israel: as it is, as it should be, and as it is perceived.  I'm not addressing beliefs or stereotypes nor teaching about Palestinians; those are things that will, I hope, happen in conversation and learning this year.   This is a preliminary, internal-to-the-community conversation.  I'm not talking to people who identify primarily as activists instead of as Jews; I'm addressing Jews who were in the synagogue for the Kol Nidrey service on Yom Kippur (and guests).

You may disagree with my decision about the title, but I want you to know it was not out of unthinking habit.

[1] (Psalm 137, dsg translation adapted from Sefaria.org)

[2] (From “Conversations about home (at a deportation center)” accessed on 4 October 2017 at https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/warsan-shire/conversations-about-home-at-deportation-centre.  See also this interview with the poet where she talks about the creation of her work: https://africainwords.com/2013/06/21/qa-poet-writer-and-educator-warsan-shire/)

[3] (Lev. 19:33-34)

[4] (Deuteronomy 16:20)

[5] (Deuteronomy 16:18-20)

[6] (2 Samuel 5. The name Urusalim predates King David’s time by 500 years, as attested in the correspondence between its ruler annd Pharoah preserved in the Amarna letters.)

[7] (2 Samuel 24:17-25)

[8] (Pirkey Avot 1:14)

[9] (Peter Beinart, “Why Is One Pro-Israel Group Desperate to Keep You From Watching This Video?” in The Forward, JUne 30, 2017, page 18.  “The Jewish Daily Forward” was originally a Yiddish Socialist paper, and is still left-of-center.)

[10] (Tikkun Passover supplement 2017, p. 16)

[11] (Peter Beinart, “Why Is One Pro-Israel Group Desperate To Keep You From Watching This Video?” June 30, 2017, page 18.  http://forward.com/opinion/375214/why-is-one-pro-israel-group-desperate-to-keep-you-from-watching-this-video/

[12] (Deuteronomy 16:20)

[13] (Exodus 23:9)

[14] (Psalms 34:15 — though in its original context it’s a description, not a command.)

[15] (Deuteronomy 11:13-17)

[16] (Rabbi Shim’on ben Gamliel, Pirkey Avot 1:18)