Thursday, September 24, 2015

Shacharit l'Rosh Hashanah 5776

Message for Rosh Hashanah Morning 5776
Israel: Three Things on which We All Agree

Under normal circumstances, I don’t take my cues from taxi drivers, but my driver to the Tel Aviv airport this past July surprised me. He is a mizrahi Jew, probably Iraqi, who when he found out I was coming to the States, wanted me to be sure that I tell you that the people of Israel respect and appreciate the president of the U. S., period., and that “Bibi” had no place in trying to impose his views on America. He concluded by saying Israel has very few true friends in the world and that they should treat them well. Like many of us, he thought that a rift between the U. S. government, and the government of Israel could not be beneficial for Israel.

If you have been following the news, and it would be hard to miss, you know that the Obama administration, along with other nations, has negotiated an agreement with Iran concerning Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It now appears that the president has mustered enough support among Democratic senators to avoid outright rejection of the agreement. Also, you have heard that the Prime Minister of Israel, B. Netaniyahu has expressed his total opposition to the agreement. So, what’s one to do?

A few weeks ago, the leaders of the Reform movement, representing the URJ, CCAR, and ARZA, issued a statement concerning the Iran Deal. Let me tell you that they basically said that, given how controversial the issue is, they could not agree to support or reject the deal . This has proven to be a wise course of action, because being “for” or “against” the deal is not what matters most anyway.

Many people: Jews, non-Jews, legislators, pundits, you name it… have expressed opinions, sanctimonious judgments, and harsh criticism against those with whom -eacdisagrees. The supporters of the deal have been called appeasers, “Kapos;” those opposing the deal have been accused of being warmongers and irrational, or worse… As for myself, I have been reluctant to come done on one side of the issue, because I think the arguments over the Iran nuclear agreement have the potential of damaging the American Jewish community and, by extension, Israel.

I trust that the Reform movement took time to learn and debate the agreement; the statement released by our leaders concludes that:

"there is simply no clarity that would support taking a position 'for' or 'against' the [deal] itself." Rather, the statement emphasizes, "[…] how can we work to support the strongest possible U.S.-Israel relationship going forward?"

I’m glad they didn’t come out in support of the deal, -or against it. Many of us can see that the Iran deal is both good and bad at some level for both the U. S. and Israel. My concern is that the rhetoric on both sides has escalated to such a degree that we may see an unwelcome rift between the U. S. and Israel. 

Our Reform leaders continue,

“The U.S.-Israel relationship is of historic and strategic importance. It is based on shared values and common concerns. The health of that relationship must never be jeopardized or allowed to become a partisan political issue. Now, more than ever, it is critical to solidify the unique relationship between the U.S. and Israel.”

In sum, the arguments about the Iran deal have potential unwanted consequences for the U. S.-Israel relations, which will have to be mended and rebuilt. If that weren’t enough, the controversy over the Iran deal has created conflict among American Jews, and that should concern us all. We are not here to talk Israeli politics or international diplomacy; but I want you to consider the risk of fracturing the unity of the Jewish community over one particular issue –no matter how important it might seem to be to either side.

The statement of the Reform Movement acknowledges our commitment to pluralism when it comes to Israel and the policies of its government. It reads,

“The Reform Movement is large and diverse. Within the Movement, reasonable people –patriotic Americans and passionate Zionists - have expressed different and valid positions on this agreement, articulating the many arguments made by others as well.”
I am sure that many of us could articulate concerns and issues we find in the current agreement. These are all valid concerns held by people who may disagree about the current agreement, but we are all of one mind that there are many other issues with Iran, that for our safety and that of Israel should be resolved.
I know that it’s hard to focus on the future and what this deal or no-deal means for Israel, but we must not be swayed by the news media outlets, who, in their search for a “good fight,” love to exploit disagreements between Israeli and American government officials.

As a synagogue, as a religious institution, we are called to learn and to pray together, with those who agree with us, as well as with those who don’t. We must find areas in which we agree about Israel, and join our voices in prayer. The issue of Iran is not over, nor is the continuous de-legitimization of Israel occurring on college campuses across North America as well as at many international forums. In this New Year, more than ever, we must find common ground among our people and show our unyielding support for a Jewish and democratic State of Israel. There is hope, because we should be able to agree on at least three points about Israel, if not more.
Firstly, and you all know it because you live it, we, American Jews, care deeply about Israel. The 2013 Pew Research Center poll concludes that 69% of us say that we are “emotionally very attached” (30%) or “somewhat attached” (39%) to Israel. These findings closely resemble results from the last National Jewish Population Survey, conducted in 2000-2001. Yet,it is hard to ascertain from a survey what each individual means when they say that they are “emotionally very attached.”
It is hard to explain because it’s emotional! I learned Hebrew in Argentina and was fluent before I ever set foot in Israel. Learning Hebrew in a foreign land had been the experience of most Jews until the 20th century. I arrived in Israel for my first year of rabbinical school in August 1994. The feeling of arriving in Israel and having signs in Hebrew everywhere I looked was overwhelming. Those letters that I had only seen in books, were now a living language. It may seem like a simple fact: of course there are signs in Hebrew in Israel, but it is not. The most mundane Hebrew sign signifies to me that am yisrael chai, the Jewish people is alive. That realization is my attachment, what is yours? You need to be able to articulate it, so you can be an advocate of Israel in your family and among your friends, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Expressing your emotional connection to Israel helps Israel and her people.

Secondly, we all believe that American Jews and Israeli Jews should share common values about the centrality of democracy and civil rights. In Israel, just like in America, a fair democratic process and civil rights for every inhabitant are still more a goal, an objective, than a reality. This past summer saw violence against LGBT supporters in Jerusalem as well as plain ugliness against Israeli women who wished to freely pray at the kotel, at the Western Wall, on Rosh Hodesh. Reform and Conservative Jewish women in Israel are not treated equally by the government. I am not a rabbi in the eyes of the State of Israel; that must change. In addition, the Arab minorities as well as African refugees and Bedouins do not enjoy the same civil rights that Jews do. However, all these issues are not unique to Israel, we share our struggles with civil rights here in America: Fergusson, Baltimore, and many others.

We must agree that the same value placed on civil rights by American Jews, in our own country, must be expected from Israelis as well. Our early Reformers saw the mission of the Jewish people as being “a light unto the Nations.” That message is still valid. We pray that our brothers and sisters in Israel never lose track of that mission and that Israelis will join us in demanding civil rights for all. Standing up for civil rights for everyone in Israel helps Israel and its people be the best they can be.
Finally, we need to be seekers of peace. We read in Pirke Avot, the famous Ethics of the Fathers,

“Hillel says: Be of the disciples of Aaron, ohev shalom, loving peace and rodef shalom, pursuing peace, loving the creatures and bringing them closer to Torah.”

Ohev shalom, loving peace, is what our Sages teach, but does not stand on its own. We must also be a rodef shalom, a seeker of peace; we must actively do something to bring peace about. I know we all like to disagree on Jewish matters, and it is healthy to do so at some level. Yet, our Sages knew very well that there is such a thing as “too much dissent,” especially among our own people. The Talmud teaches that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, “gratuitous hatred,” among Jews. The historical reality might have been different –the Temple was destroyed because the Romans decided to make the Jews an example of what happens when you defy the Empire. But our Sages found a deeper meaning in the tragedy: We must never let internal struggles and hatred divide us, not then, not now. 

Each in our position in life and within the Jewish community must be a rodef shalom, a bringer of peace and harmony among people. I know that there are mean-spirited people out there who will not listen, but if each one of us tries our best to be that true disciple of Aaron by sowing harmony and not discord among our people, I know good things will happen in this New Year.

Although we can control how we act, we cannot do the same with others, so, as we gather together in synagogues around the world, we do what we came here to do, we pray. On this first of a New Year, when everything is possible again, we echo the ancient words the prophet Isaiah and pray:
“May they beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. May no nation take up sword against nation, nor may they train for war anymore.”

At the beginning of a New Year, we are called to be open to compassion and forgiveness, so we pray for peace and understanding. We pray that 5776 and the years to follow will be a time of peace for ALL people, but especially for our beloved State of Israel.

So we offer a prayer for Israel, which you can follow in Hebrew in our prayer book on page 274. This beautiful musical rendition was written by Cantor Meir Finkelstein, who was kind enough to send it to me, so that I could share it with you in this New Year.

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