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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Our Jewish Homes: Israel, Rosh Hashanah Sermon

The Torah lies to Abraham. No worse, God lies to him. Abraham, Go kill your son! The Torah tells the world that this is only a test; tells the world except for Abraham. Things for Abraham are not as they appear. How could Abraham think that God would want his precious beloved son, his heir, stabbed to death, drained of blood and charred to bone and cinders upon an alter? This is not what our God would have wanted. How’d Abraham miss this? Because Abraham was threatened that the life he had built with God would be lost if he did not obey. There were, I believe, two ways to pass this test. The pious and cruel way Abraham tried or the activist way. “Excuse me God,” Abraham might of said, as he did at Sodom and Gomorrah. “Forgive my impertinence, but this is really a bad idea.” I think that God would have given Abraham an A+ on the exam. This is what Moses says to God when God threatens to kill all his children--that is the entire Jewish people--in the desert. Why didn’t Abraham see how wrong this was and how out of character for God? Where was the supreme value we place on life?

We Jews claim that we and God value life above all. If, for example, next week on Yom Kippur, if there is any health related reason not to fast, determined either by a physician or by the patient, then the person must eat. Not may eat but must eat. The value of life is a touchstone of what it means to be a Jew. And in those moments, when we look beyond ourselves, we yield to the universality of the value of life among all peoples. Life is the great value. Yes, there are exceptions. Yet we understand them as aberrations. Isis, Hamas, Boko Haram, terrorists in general, wanton murderers--these are those who do not value life. For the rest of us, and certainly for Jews, life is precious beyond precious.

Let’s talk about Hamas for a moment. They don’t value life or at least value it the way we do. As Benyamin Netanyahu said, speaking of the great loss of life in Gaza, “We use rockets to defend people, while they use people to defend rockets.” Over a six week period, Hamas, the government, the elected government of Gaza, fired 4,500 rockets at Israel, essentially all of them at civilians. And the tunnels they dug into Israel did not end at military installations. No, they opened up on to people’s homes and schools. There is much to be said to defend the rights of the Palestinian people including their right of self-determination, but they lack good leadership. A Hamas victory, as they would define it, would include the murder of all six million Israelis and then Hamas would want to come after us. This is how they value life.

Yet, I want to reverse myself. Hamas, or Isis or Boko Haram or any other “they” you want to point to, don’t seem to value life as we do. But I think that actually instead of proving our superiority, these groups, despite their evil, point to a deeper truth. Despite our righteous stance, no one, including ourselves, really values life. We are not aggressive killers, but so often we, the good people, act without regard for life. How many times is there an injustice committed in which a person loses his or her life? And how many, many times is this injustice followed by riots that kill scores more? Ferguson is but the most recent example here at home. And why would police officers, who also lay honest claim to the value of life and a willingness to defend life at often the ultimate sacrifice, want militarize themselves? Did 9/11, thirteen years ago, make the world so dangerous that Missouri needs to be armed against foreign invasion?

The value we claim for life, does not match our actions and never did. We don’t value life, we value our lives and we value our lives above the lives of other people. The United States has consistently taken a hard stance against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Through treaty and sanctions it has been a rock of our foreign policy for 70 years. It was the convincing selling point of our invasion of Iraq, even if that was a lie. Americans agree that we can’t allow anyone else, anyone dangerous to possess nuclear weapons. We are so convinced of this. We are the only country ever to use a nuclear weapon. And we did it twice, even after we obliterated the civilian population of Hiroshima with the first bomb. There were reasons, good reasons, all of which come down to valuing our lives more than our enemy’s.

We value life. We value our lives. As do all people. So perhaps the only way to survive is to stay on top. I feel badly that Palestinian civilians died, essentially defending their elected government’s rockets and tunnels. I do not feel badly that Israel built an infrastructure that decades later built Iron Dome that defended its people against those very rockets. Kol hakavod. Bravo.

That’s part of the core identity of Zionism. To rebuild the Jewish people from the bottom up. In Europe, in the early part of the 20th century, we were weaker than the Palestinians are today. Expulsions, discrimination, pogroms and the pogrom to end all pogroms, the Holocaust. The Russian ambassador in the United States, Count Cassini, at the time of the horrific Kishinev Pogrom and strangely the maternal grandfather of fashion designer Oleg Cassini, said, "There is in Russia, as in Germany and Austria, a feeling against certain of the Jews. The reason for this unfriendly attitude is found in the fact that the Jews will not work in the field or engage in agriculture.” We were not permitted to engage in agriculture and so we needed to be raped and murdered in Kishinev. Zionists were farsighted and determined to end the cycle, not by killing their enemies, but by rebuilding the Jewish people literally from the ground up. We would farm, drive trucks, build buildings, create labor unions and systems of national healthcare. Iron Dome is simply one of Zionism’s many successes.

I wish the Palestinian people equal success. But truth be told, Palestinian aspirations and Zionist aspirations are in conflict. We both claim the same land. And it is not about 1947 borders designed by the United Nations and accepted only by Israel or ‘48 borders defined by the War of Independence or the much expanded borders of 1967, again defined by war. It is about the whole place. And to my personal frustration, sharing is not high on anyone’s agenda. Just the opposite. Everyone wants peace but only on their own terms.

Truth: Maybe one you share with me. I support one side in this conflict even as I support human dignity for all. I would love to live long enough to see two states living in peace side by side. But even with all the flaws I might find in aspects of Zionism and all the weaknesses I see in the present Israeli government, I would rather see Israel win than Hamas. No, that is not quite right. It is not a case of rather. I just want Israel to win. To be secure, Jewish, and to prosper. Besides which, if Hamas wins, by their definition half of world Jewry would be murdered immediately and the other half, us, later. That is their stated goal. Maybe Israel and their elected government and perhaps even Zionism, as a historic movement, lack the necessary concern for Palestinians, but the asymmetry of hatred is astounding.

The rabbis of old taught that if you and I are in the desert with one bottle of water and we both know that the bottle is just enough to sustain one person, and only one person, on the journey to safety, then the person holding the water gets to keep it. You can’t be a lover of life unless you love your own life. Suicidal sacrifice is permitted but not demanded. And as groups, we always chose our lives over the lives of others. We want to live as free people in Israel even if others have to die. Better we should live in peace, but better we should live. That is the value of life.

Two months ago, I was flying to Tel Aviv through the very organized Frankfurt airport. Pre-boarding was announced for our flight. You know, for those needing assistance etc., etc. Every Israeli just charged the gate. Israelis can be so wonderfully annoying. The next day I was sitting, eating shawarma, at an outdoor restaurant on Bazel Street. The eatery "Bazel Congress" and the street commemorate the first Zionist Congress that Theodor Herzl gathered in 1897 to unite a very diverse Jewish Europe in the quest for Jewish statehood. He herded the Katz, spelled K-a-t-z. A large sign over the restaurant framing the rounded entrance said, “The customer is always wrong.” Israelis today can be so wonderfully annoying.

A few of the staff had pinned 3x5 cards to their shirts that said, "nigmar???" or, "is it over?" They were marking the news that Israel had begun to pull back from their forward positions in Gaza. This was a war Israel did not want. Israelis want peace. They are not annoying at all. But until some real accommodation to legitimate Palestinian aspirations is found, wars will continue. The Jewish West Bank settlers’ vision, that seems very appealing to the present government, that given enough time the Palestinians will just leave, is pathetic. No mutual compromise, no peace, less life. Nigmar, is it over? Not for some time, but in that time I will choose a side, my side.

After lunch, a friend and I walked over to the park on the banks of the Yarkon river. A lush spot indeed considering it, like all of Tel Aviv, is built on sand. Sitting on a park bench, enjoying the world, the dreaded air raid sirens went off. I watched parents and children scurry for cover. Then, after some seemingly long passage of time, the sound of two Iron Dome missiles blasting Hamas rockets. The afternoon was a mix of politics, hopes and military strength. I walked home in the late afternoon, put on a swimsuit and rode Mediterranean waves into the dusk. The water was beyond delightful but even this was tinged with politics, playing in the face of danger, with no shelter in sight. But this is the life I value, my life, even when I put it at risk.

Last week, I officiated at a memorial service for a beloved aunt who died in her sleep at 104. One of those few times when passing is not a euphemism for death but a description of the event. She passed, in her sleep, at 104. Among the memories recalled at the service was her dedication to Zionism that began long before Israel became a nation. However, what moved me the most, what really shook my emotions, was hearing that among her papers lay a certificate for trees bought to be planted in Palestine with the JNF, the Jewish National Fund, in honor of her birth in 1910. We have been at this project a long time. My first tree was bought 10 cents a week in Hebrew school. A dime bought one of 10 leaf sticker to be licked and glued to a to a picture of a tree. When I wrote this last week, I could not find the cent symbol, the half circle with the line, on my keyboard. We have been at this a long time. Zionism is the Jewish national liberation struggle. Winning success was not easy and continued survival is not easy, but it is our lot.

How’d we do it? How’d we succeed? Some luck. Some sympathy. Enormous determination. And real work. As the Arab proverb puts it so well, “Luck belongs to the skillful.” JNF took that money and reforested the barren land. That’s a lie, well a half truth. What JNF did was buy land, build the electrical grid, and the sewage and water system, build roads and encourage settlement where it would do the most good. Oh, yeah, they also reforested the land. Meanwhile, the workers unionized, the producers of dairy and farm products created cooperatives to bring their product efficiently to market. National health care was developed and an army created. All before 1948, way before.

I lived in Israel for a year on a kibbutz close to Gaza founded on erev Yom Kippur as part of the successful plan to establish Jewish settlements in the empty Negev region. On many a Shabbat morning, a group of us would ride through Gaza, past refugee camps built in 1948 to house Palestinians temporarily until Israel could be destroyed. We were headed to the beach. I know beaches, I grew up on Long Island. I spend summers riding wave crashing on spectacular white sand beaches. Gaza has great beaches. So when Israel withdrew from Gaza, there was an opportunity to build a tourist industry based on those beaches. Europeans would have flocked to those resorts as they came in droves to Eilat, which has rocky, not so spectacular beaches, after the Oslo accords made peace look close. Sadly, in Gaza, the building supplies, the cement and such, were needed elsewhere to build hardened tunnels from Gaza to kill Jews and to deliver rockets through Egypt to kill Jews. Our Zionist leaders built the infrastructure of a state. That is valuing life. Their leaders, not the people, but the leaders of Gaza, sought and seek our death. What a waste. The Palestinian people deserve a state. Unfortunately, their leadership has failed them.

And so has ours. The future of Zionism and Israel will not be secured without compromise. The value of our own lives requires compromise. I went to a web site of a rabbi I follow for his lectures that I often recommend to others. He had an article about the three boys murdered by Hamas that, along with the subsequent revenge killing, touched off this war. He used a phrase after mentioning the three boys. When recalling those killed in such a manner, you can say either, may the memory of our martyrs be a blessing or you can say May God avenge their blood. I was saddened to see the second. Even if I value my life first, I must value other lives as well. I must or my own life is diminished. Today the water bottle can be shared and still, we both can get out of the desert.

Look at Abraham. So confused. He values his life with God. He values Isaac’s life. Only one will survive he is told. Unsure Abraham, whose knife must have lingered above the boy long enough for God to observe this most terrible of human conflicts, the choice between right and right, between life and life. And God must admit the shame of asking the question, of giving the test. The real test is if we can preserve ourselves in a way that preserves the human dignity of everyone.

To watch this sermon, click here