Yom Kippur AM – 5775 – 2014
Rabbi Joseph M. Forman
The story is told of a tourist who visited Jerusalem's biblical zoo and saw that each enclosure bore a sign containing a pertinent biblical quotation. One quoted Isaiah, "on that day the wolf and the lamb will live together. "Across the moat separating the animals from visitors he saw that indeed a wolf and a lamb were lying peaceably together, side-by-side. Amazed, he sought out the zookeeper and asked how that was possible. "It's simple,” the zookeeper replied. “Every day we put in a new lamb."
This summer was a difficult one for Israelis. And a difficult one for anyone living in Gaza. For 50 days Israel and the terrorist organization Hamas -- a word that means Violence – were engaged in a war. And while people living outside the region were not subjected to the constant shelling coming from Gaza or the sirens announcing the deployment of the defense system Iron Dome which protected the lives of Israelis, anyone paying attention to the situation there also had a difficult summer, as they debated and discussed what Israelis now call HaMatzav – the situation – a situation in which Israel was defending itself from rocket attacks and Hamas was seeking, as its charter states, the destruction of Israel.
To be clear: The right and need to defend oneself from attack is both a mandate of Rabbinic tradition as well as the primary responsibility of sovereign states toward its citizens. Israel did no less than that in Operation Protective Edge.
And also to be clear: Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and therefore shares the Muslim Brotherhood’s enthusiasm for “death for the sake of Allah,” stating in its charter:
“Allah is its target, the Prophet is its model, the Koran its constitution: Jihad is its path and death for the sake of Allah is the loftiest of its wishes.”
This summer, during the recent conflict, both sides tried to live up to their ideals as best as possible. And the not so surprising result was that they both succeeded.
There is much debate – at least in the Jewish world -- about the Situation in Israel.
And while the Jewish world is not divided on our support of Israel’s right to exist, it is, however, very divided on where we stand on priorities that must be addressed that will ultimately resolve this festering conflict in Israel.
We are so divided, in fact, that many rabbis say they avoid speaking of Israel. They contend that Israel has become too polarizing within our community. The subject invariably fosters controversy and even outrage and contempt. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, past president of the Union for Reform Judaism, has stated: the debate is so divisive that “…North American Jews no longer know how to have a civil conversation about Israel.”
Some rabbis avoid the topic because they believe their congregants either are not that interested in the subject or that the issues are too complex and nuanced to tackle in a sermon.
Still other rabbis, according to a survey published by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, say they haven’t shared their views on Israel for fear of endangering their professional reputation or careers.
But mostly, I suspect, the topic of Israel is taboo because of the tremendous split among us – or more accurately, within us – over our feelings about the legitimacy of Israel’s actions toward her neighbors, and what those actions mean for those of us – Jews who live in the diaspora, and who are not Israeli – and yet are affected by them as members of the Jewish world.
Leonard Fein, known to nearly all his friends as Leibel, has been described as a journalist, a writer, an academic and an activist, and the foremost liberal Zionist. He was above all, a learned and feeling Jew, steeped in the values and teachings of our tradition.
Leibel Fein died this past August at the age of 80. I was fortunate to have met him, and I learned from his wisdom, his humility and his wit and humor. Known as an impenitent dove and a proud Reform Jew, he founded Moment Magazine, as well as the charity Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger. Leibel beautifully described the ambivalence many American Jews feel about the situation in Israel.
“There are two kinds of Jews in the world. There is the kind of Jew who detests war and violence, who believes fighting is not the Jewish way, who willingly accepts that Jews have their own standards of behavior. And not just that we have them, but that those standards are our life blood.
“And there is the kind of Jew who thinks that we have been passive long enough, who is convinced that it is time for us to strike back at our enemies, to reject once and for all the role of victim, who willingly accepts that Jews cannot afford to depend on favors, but we must be tough and strong.
“And the trouble is,” he wrote, “most of us are both kinds of Jews.” (from Days of Awe. 1982).
Leibel Fein spoke to the internal conflicts that many of us struggle with. There are many points on which the Jewish world wrestles. But remarkably, there are a few we are united on.
This morning of Yom Kippur we will hear the words of Deuteronomy. Written nearly 3000 years ago, much of Deuteronomy conveys sentiments that no longer resonate with the modern world. But the words we are about to read still speak of a Jewish value that is echoed across the Jewish world – from the cloistered Ultra-Orthodox communities of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem and their near twins in Monsey, NY, to the Humanistic Jewish enclaves of Detroit, from the citadels of Classical Reform in Manhattan and Atlanta to the small shuls in Nebraska and the rural towns right here in Hunterdon County.
“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil .… the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you and your children may live.” (Deut. 30: 15, 19)
Every year on Yom Kippur we read these words. And again this morning our students will beautifully chant them.
We hear them year after year. But do we really hear them? Do we realize how profoundly unique in the history of religion and across the landscape of our modern world is the idea that the preservation of life is of the highest value?
Over and over again we find this message in our tradition -- not just in Deuteronomy, but in all our sacred texts.
Our sages taught that those who save but a single life – it is attributed to them as though they had saved the entire world.
Pikuach Nefesh -- the saving of a life -- takes precedence over every other religious obligation. In fact, our religious obligations are given to us that we should live by them. Live and not die!!
That may seem so self evident. And yet, let us look at our world today.
Suicide bombers from Hamas and Hezbolla blow-up themselves and others for their cause.
Hamas leaders prevent innocent civilians from leaving Israeli targeted buildings, shooting anyone who tries to run to safety.
Taliban mujihadeen in Afghanistan looking for Martyrdom, their highest value, not only fly planes into buildings, but kill political candidates at odds with their views.
Boko Haram militants in Africa kidnapping over 200 girls in Nigeria who still remain missing since April and slaughtering Christians, Jews and even Muslims who do not follow their faith in the manner they demand.
Al Qaeda murdering people in the name of Islam – a word that means peace.
And now the group called ISIS is beheading reporters and anyone who dares to challenge their reign of terror in Syria and Iraq.
Last Wednesday, President Barak Obama addressed the United Nations in New York. He spoke of the “…cancer of violent extremism that has ravaged so many parts of the Muslim world.”
“Mothers, sisters and daughters have been subjected to rape as a weapon of war. Innocent children have been gunned down. Bodies have been dumped in mass graves. Religious minorities have been starved to death. In the most horrific crimes imaginable, innocent human beings have been beheaded, with videos of the atrocity distributed to shock the conscience of the world. No God condones this terror. No grievance justifies these actions. There can be no reasoning – no negotiation – with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.”
Again, in the Jewish community, as pursuers of peace, debates emerge – within ourselves and between one another. Only now the subject is America and her enemies.
The words of the Prophet Zechariah declared: “Not by might and not by power, but by Spirit alone shall we all live in peace!” (Zechariah 4:6) But the reality is that the U.S. and Israel and increasingly more of the world must respond to these terrors not with the silence that leads to our own death, but with the might of a strong defense and a powerful force to end these atrocities.
How we shall do so -- balancing our values of the preservation of human life and the need to protect ourselves -- is the challenge that Israel endured all summer long. And in this endeavor, there will no doubt be disagreement over the choices America will make.
The dissonance between Israel’s need to defend her own children from Hamas’s missiles and that terrorist organization’s cynical calculation to defend their own missiles with their own children made for an incredibly painful set of choices for Israel… and put Israel, in the eyes of much of the world, in a nearly no-win situation.
And yet, “what would you do…?” asked Amos Oz, Israel’s pre-eminent public intellectual and most prominent advocate for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “What would you do,” he asked, “if your neighbor across the street were to sit down on his balcony, put his child on his lap and start shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?”
“And what would you do if your across-the-street neighbor were to dig a tunnel from his nursery to yours in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?”
Let us not fall prey to the experience described by the head of the Yesh Atid Party and new Member of Knesset Yair Lapid, who, in commenting on his transition to governing, stated: “I used to have so many opinions before I learned the facts.” So here are some of them.
During those days, 1000’s of Hamas rockets were sent from and stored within residential areas -- including mosques, hospitals and schools. They unscrupulously violated every norm in warfare. Their incredibly elaborate and expensive system of underground tunnels built between Gaza and Israel proper were intended to be used to kidnap and murder Israelis on Rosh Hashana. When discovered, it was clear that rather than choosing to invest in their own people’s infrastructure and future, Hamas chose death -- for themselves and for others.
66 Israeli soldiers and 6 Israeli civilians died in that conflict. And by waging its war from within civilian centers, and by doing nothing to protect its own people, we may never know the precise number of innocent Palestinian civilians who died in Gaza this past summer.
Israeli munitions took the lives of the enemy. Yet, no one can reasonably claim Israel either wanted or deliberately chose to target Gaza’s civilian population for harm. On the contrary!
Heeding the words of Deuteronomy: “When you draw near to a city to wage war against it, you must first call out to it for peace.” (Deut. 20:10), the Israeli Defense Forces sent warning phone calls and leaflets and smoke bombs all in an effort to minimize the loss of innocent life. It is Hamas who is culpable for each and every one of these senseless deaths. Let the words of Deuteronomy reaffirm our stance: every life lost is a tragedy.
Reconciling ourselves to the reality of Israel’s dilemma is not simple when the leaders of Gaza wish only to destroy the Jewish State.
Each of us no doubt feels deeply the desire to end this conflict soon and with minimal loss of life, and for me, at least, with a homeland for both Israelis and Palestinians. There are many paths to peace. Many ways to get there if peace is the common goal. Our task is not to decry the tactics of one side or the other, but to move further along that road with those who would walk with us.
Israel is more than the sum of its conflicts, not because the Jewish state is perfect, but because its cause is fundamentally just and because it is ours. As we struggle with the tension between the real and the ideal, between the is and the ought, let us remember the sentiment embedded in Israel’s anthem: Hatikvah – the hope. May this year bring renewed hope for peace to Israel, to the people in her regions and to all the world.
Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova.
This afternoon for our study session we will engage in what I trust will be a lively discussion on the situation in Israel. It is an opportunity to explore these issues in greater detail and hear the diverse opinions within our own community.
It begins at 3PM.
I look forward to seeing you there.