Here's my Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon from this year.
So here’s how the story goes, as recounted by Martin Gilbert:
“While visiting Israel, a teacher of mine encountered an American minister who started badgering him with hostile questions and comments about Israel, and finally asked him, "What is it that you Jews really want?"“My teacher responded with the following story:At Stolpce, Poland, on September 23, 1942, the ghetto was surrounded by German soldiers. Pits had been prepared outside a nearby village where the Jews would be led and then shot. The Germans entered the ghetto, searching for the Jews. A survivor by the name of Eliezer Melamed later recalled how he and his girlfriend found a room where they hid behind sacks of flour. A mother and her three children had followed them into the house. The mother hid in one corner of the room, the three children in another.The Germans entered the room and discovered the children. One of children, a young boy, began to scream, "Mama! Mama!" as the Germans dragged the three of them away.But another of them, only four years old, shouted to his brother in Yiddish, "Zog nit 'Mameh.' "Don't say 'Mama.' They'll take her, too."
The boy stopped screaming. The mother remained silent. Her children were dragged away. The mother was saved."I will always hear that," Melamed recalled, "especially at night. 'Zog nit Mameh' 'Don't say Mama.' And I will always remember the sight of the mother. Her children were dragged away by the Germans. She was hitting her head against the wall, as if to punish herself for remaining silent, for wanting to live."After concluding the story, my teacher told the minister, "What do we Jews really want? Well, I'll tell you what I want. All I want is that our grandchildren should be able to call out 'Mama' without fear. All we want is that the world leaves us alone."This story has been close to my heart ever since I first heard it. There are a number of things we could take away from this awful tale. One is that even today, even now when we as a people are as secure and as prosperous as we have ever been, when we can finally stop wincing in anticipation of the violent act, when our charities have worldwide reach and do profound good throughout the world (witness IsraAid, American Jewish World Service, and Mazon, just to name a few), even today, there are those who, be it out of spite or ancient hatred or well-meaning ignorance—would seek to do us harm. That there are still people in this world who hold dear the notion of the Jew as weak, helpless (alternating, of course, with powerful and insidious) and a strong State of Israel undermines that deeply felt idea.
Another idea—one that follows directly from the first—is that a strong Israel in partnership with the Jews of the world is our best chance to live in a world without fear. And that means, of course, our own advocacy and support: Through AIPAC and J-Street and their advocacy for a strong Israel, through support of institutions like ARZA, The Reform Movement’s Zionist wing, and through the purchase of Israel Bonds.
I also draw from this story an idea that Israel—and by extension the Jewish people—wish merely for survival, for equal treatment, to be, as Melamed said, left alone. And certainly, there is that sentiment I’m sure among those in this room and in the halls of the Knesset: that we want to be left alone, that only then will we as a people and the Jewish state have real peace. Why else would the security fence have been built, except to say most definitively to the Palestinians: ‘we don’t want to talk, we don’t want to be blown up, we don’t want to be at war but we don’t think we can be friends, so leave us alone.’
I take something else from the story as well. Yes, we want to survive, but survival means more than mere existence. There is an ethical, a moral element to survival as well. Many of us want Israel to be more than just a country like any other, with prostitutes and crime and dirty sidewalks. We want a state that is Jewish and Democratic in the full sense of both of those words. We want a Jewish state that represents the values of our People, that stands, to quote our Scriptures, as a light to the nations. Perhaps this is Diaspora thinking; perhaps Israel has nothing to prove to other countries and by espousing this belief we are fooling ourselves somehow, forgetting our lessons in realpolitik, too concerned with exceptionalism. However, as an American, I come by my exceptionalism honestly, and just as I want the United States to be a nation that, if it were a person, we could describe her behavior as moral and upstanding, so too do I wish for an Israel that fulfills the words of our prophets, that is informed not just by our heritage of oppression but our heritage of joy and commitment to the betterment of others.
Of course, this is all well and good to speak of this theoretically utopian Israel, what about the Israel that exists, the facts on the ground? What do we find there?
Well, let’s find out!
It’s been too long since Beth Emeth had a trip to Israel. We have been away from that country for too many years. Much has happened since then—heck, much has happened in the last year! The uprisings in Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia, and throughout the Middle East, sometimes resulting in regime change, sometimes revealing the oppressiveness of those in power, have transformed the middle east. Israel has seen herself transformed as well, with her citizens piling into the streets to peacefully protest financial, civil and social inequalities, demanding a better life for themselves and each other. And the Palestinian Authority saw this month as a month to make their move, to finally express their longing for their own home in ways that many of us find understandable, but challenging and disconcerting, to say the least.
And yet, despite all these changes, despite all that’s happened in Israel in the last several years, how well do we know the country? Oh, we’re informed in our news consumption, in communicating with relatives back home, but you and I know that’s not the same thing as being present, being physically there, being amongst Israeli Jews and Arabs and Druze, touching the earth, breathing the air, listening to someone else’s cellphone conversation in Hebrew, and arguing every last point with the guy at the makolet corner store when all you want is a coke and he wants to talk politics, jutting a cigarette-ornamented finger at you to make his point.
If you can’t tell, I miss Israel. I miss the country, her people, every aspect of that place. And my guess is many of you are like that as well—even those of you who haven’t been to Israel. That’s why it’s time to go back. To go to Israel, to meet her people, to see the places—ancient, historical and contemporary—that make the place the homeland of our souls, and to better understand what it means to advocate for Israel.
Because, I will tell you, there is no better way to advocate for Israel than by being there. Yes, it is crucial to support Israel here at home, through support of ARZA, AIPAC, J Street, and other organizations. Yes, to buy Israel bonds is as close to achieving Maimonides’ highest rung of tzedakah: for by buying them, we give Israel the ability to invest in her own people, who can lead meaningful lives, making the whole land bloom not just with the flowers and eucalyptus trees of the old songs of the yishuv, but scientific, technological and educational endeavors as well. But there’s a reason AIPAC is taking 81 congressional representatives and senators to Israel this fall. They understand that it’s one thing to read a really nice brochure or follow things online, or to bring in all kinds of experts to speak with us; it’s another to go and learn for yourself, to experience with your own hands and own eyes. And that is what all of us need to do. For those of us, like myself, who trend left-of-center, we need to go to Ariel University and Ma’aleh Edumim on the other side of the green line, and ask ourselves if these ‘settlers’ are really the demons we think they are. And those of us who trend right, and see no partners for peace among the Palestinians, need to be challenged as well, and speak with Arabs who want to see their children grow up as our children grow up, with a sense that their homeland is free and at peace. Friends, we need to go to Israel, you and I. We need to be there, to feel Israeli earth beneath our feet, to breathe the air. So it’s my pleasure and honor to announce that we are going to Israel. It has been too long since Beth Emeth had a congregational trip to Ha’Aretz, ,and so this summer, we are going, and I want you to come with me.
If you’ve never been to Israel, now is the time to go: we’ll go to Tel Aviv and experience Shabbat in Jerusalem, stand where our ancestors stood in Safed and Masada, connect with our Reform brothers and sisters at Kibbutz Yahel and Lotan and learn what ecological marvels they’re creating there. And if you’ve been to Israel before, now is still the time to go: we’ll meet settlers and Palestinians, study with Rabbis for Human Rights and work the looms with Yad L’khasish, lifeline for the old. Over 10 days in June we’ll marvel at this country and all its wonders. We’ll offer words of prayer and have challenging and meaningful experiences. And yes, there will be shopping.
If you have children, don’t leave them behind! This is a trip for all ages. And if you’re travelling without children, don’t worry: There will be special educators and guides with us to create and lead kid-friendly programs separate from the adults.
I could spend all night talking about this trip, but I’d rather you came to a special parlor meeting here at the Temple on November 15th, where you’ll have a chance to see the itinerary, learn about costs and the trip, and meet people from Ayelet the tour company we’ll be working with.
Most importantly, I want you to come with me. To see Israel as you’ve never seen her before. Not only for your own spiritual wellbeing, not only for your own growth and understanding of Israel; but so that you and I can advocate for Israel better. So that when we return from the Holy Land, we can respond to questions as banal as that minister’s, so that we can speak to our congressional leaders with authority, so that when something happens, we aren’t thinking about abstract ideas, we will have real places in our hearts and our minds.
So, let us support AIPAC, and go to their advocacy program in March (you will see the fliers for that program on your seats or, will be handed a brochure on your way out). Let’s fill out every ARZA petition ever and make sure to commit ourselves to the Progressive vision of an Israel strong enough to be the kind of country it wants to be. Let’s buy Israel bonds—and ushers will be handing out Israel bonds brochures as you leave and I will tell you, you are not permitted to leave this place without one! But most importantly, let’s go to Israel and help speed redemption: for our people, for our children, for our grandchildren, so that they will only ever know a world where Israel is strong, the Jewish people secure, and they can cry out for their mamas without fear.