Friends, there is just too much to share for one moment, even this moment. Yes, I say that every year, but this year I really do mean it more. So many have gathered tonight, across the world, some because they feel an irrational tribal pull, some because they fervently believe, some despite what they fervently believe. We are holy and non-conforming people in a holy and unconventional Jewish community. We are women and men, gay, bisexual, transgender and straight, republican, democrat, independent (and other), we are single, we are married, we are old, we are young, our skin comes in many shades, we struggle with mental illness and we are caregivers, we are divorced, we are single parents, we do not have children, we are Jewish and we are not. We are all this and more. And in this crowded room we are all equal, all family, and all home.
We are here. And this solemn moment, when we stand for the strange words and haunting melody of Kol Nidrei, we tremble with a world that feels so out of sync, so off-kilter. We stand and sit and bow and weep and pray for the strength to pray, for hope despite a world writhing all around us. Thank God for the gift of unplugging from incessant status updates and screaming headlines, just for these 25 hours. Yes, that’s all still happening “out there” as we are “in here,” but just for a moment – let it be. Breathe. Hope. Live.
A year ago, someone sat with me in the days after Yom Kippur and said,
Rabbi, you’ve been here for 7 years, so I feel like I can share this with you now. On each Yom Kippur you’ve been here, you share hard things with us in your Drasha (sermon). You tell us we have to do more. But isn’t Yom Kippur about looking inside ourselves and doing teshuvah, repenting? It feels so uncomfortable to me when you use this moment as a call to action and not as a moment of Jewish introspection.
This was a powerful conversation, one in which I hope I listened as much as I responded. It has stayed with me, and what I aim to do in these short moments is both perpetuate the discomfort this person felt by sounding a call to action and also amplify to our community this person’s call to ongoing Jewish introspection.
This past summer has been a particularly bad one. We have witnessed around the world war and poverty, terrorism and climate change, injustice and genocide. And for the Global Jewish community, it has been worse than before.
The Jewish community in Ukraine has been under constant threat, including beatings and Molotov cocktails. Three weeks ago a popular Turkish columnist called for a special tax on Turkey’s Jews in order to pay for the reconstruction of Gaza. In Davos, Switzerland just a month ago, a Jew was attacked by an assailant who was shouting “Jews out.” In Spain, Tunisia, Sweden, South Africa, Morocco, Mexico and Italy, there were numerous Anti-Semitic incidents reported. In Ireland, a shul’s windows were shattered on consecutive days, and in France a shul was firebombed and the Jews inside almost lynched by an angry mob. 2014. (And, to be honest, I only chose a few of a much longer list to include.)
And while AntiSemitic attacks here in the United States did decrease 19% in 2013, they have been back with a vengeance in 2014.
- If you think I’m “only” referring to the Anti-Israel protests on campuses nation-wide and a clear Anti-Israel bias in our national media, where Anti-Israel sentiment consistently slips into Anti-Semitism;
- If you think I am “only” referring to the illegal Anti-Israel action at the Port of Oakland (where no public official nor police presence maintained the law, leading the Israeli ships to dock in Los Angeles instead, a protest whose posters in local businesses spurred hate-speech against Jews in Arizmendi’s and Trader Joe’s, again blurring the not-so-clear line between Anti-Israel activism and Anti-Semitism);
- If you think I am “only” pointing to the hateful vitriol against Israel poured out by many activists in Berkeley and the larger Bay Area, which is well-rehearsed and “only” about “the occupiers” and somehow “not” about “the Jews”;
- If you think I am “only” referring to chants of “from the river to the Sea, Palestine will be free” which are somehow “not” about making the Middle East Judenrein, ‘cleansed of Jews,’;
- If you think this is far away and not about a Brooklyn, New York Coffee Shop owner saying this week that Jewish people ‘function via greed and dominance’;
- If you think this is far away and not about the rabbi in Mississippi who was asked last week if he wanted his food “full size or Jewish size,” who was then told, “[‘Jewish size’ is] small. Jews are cheap and small. Everybody knows that,” and who, after identifying himself as a Jew was then told to leave the restaurant;
If you think this is far away, I am here to remind you that it is not far away. It is not in the Heavens. It is not limited to the news “out there.” It is all-too-near to us, even in the beautiful, thriving, protective bubble of our sacred home here in Berkeley. More than a few Netivot Shalom members have quietly, nervously shared with me their sense that something big has changed for Jews in the world.[A Post Yom Kippur Addition: I learned during Yom Kippur of two demonstrative Anti-Semitic incidents which occurred to members of my synagogue community: On the eve of Yom Kippur, a member was crossing the street when a car pulled up, the driver lowered the window, and shouted: ‘Watch it, Jew-boy.’ As we were preparing for the Ne’ilah Service, a car paused next to a few shul members gathered outside, the passenger lowered their window, and shouted at the group “Kill the Jews!’]
I am here to affirm with an aching heart that something big is happening for Jews in the world. Our aching hearts, awash in these recent Jewish memories, would do well to hear again the Talmud’s teaching:
[There was once] a man travelling on the road when he encountered a wolf and escaped from it, and he went along telling the story of the wolf. He then encountered a lion and escaped from it, and went along telling the story of the lion. He then encountered a snake and escaped from it, whereupon he forgot the two previous incidents and went along telling the story of the snake. So it is with the Jewish People: later troubles make them forget the earlier ones. (Talmud Bavli, Berachot 13a)
Yes, something big has happened. But it isn’t a change. The exception to the rule for the Jews is when something big is not happening.
Chevreh, this is my eighth Yom Kippur as rabbi of Netivot Shalom, and it will be my first time discussing Israel on Yom Kippur. Yes, that has been a conscious decision every year. Yes, it has been easier for some in the community who would rather avoid the topic. And yes, it has been a mistake. Et Chata’ai Ani Mazkir Hayom – I acknowledge my failings today.
Let’s begin with a few observations, based in our own precious shul community:
We march, as a Jewish community, in the SF Gay Pride Parade. Our board, years ago, signed onto the amicus brief for marriage equality in California, before Prop 8 reared its ugly and hateful head. Our Jewish commitment to equality, deep and real in our programing and ritual lives, demands that we act. So we march.
We stand up for justice with our Muslim and Christian sisters and brothers, hosting Ramadan’s holy call to prayer and Easter’s sacraments in our sanctuary, infusing our synagogue with more of God each time. So we stand. We march. We pray. We love.
We preach and march and advocate when it comes to the systemic racism in the American justice and legal systems, calling upon our community to be aware of upcoming ballot initiatives (like prop 47) that might just “bend the arc” of history a bit closer to justice for our African American sisters and brothers. We help lead CeaseFire initiative to protect our children and our streets from the ravages of Gun Violence, more present in black neighborhoods than white. We preach on Rosh haShannah for justice for Mike Brown and peace and dignity in Ferguson and beyond. So we march. We stand. We preach. We act.
In these cases, just three of many, we were and remain willing to stand with those who need our support, whose suffering feels like our suffering, whose pain demands our participation. We are not the same and do not always agree with our allies. At the Pride Parade, the Jewish value of tzni’ut (modesty) is not the norm. Many of our Christian and Muslim sisters and brothers have theologies that, when applied, offend and marginalize Jews and others. Our African American organizational allies don’t always line up with us on domestic and international policies.
That doesn’t stop us from marching, preaching, and standing in solidarity.
But when the topic of Israel comes up, I have found that many in our Jewish community are unwilling to stand in solidarity because of something they’d be willing to overlook elsewhere. This is because we have developed, I believe, excellent coping skills in a world that has never been kind to Jews. Those skills? Compartmentalization and a weak long-term memory.
Here’s how I believe some of that has happened. Many of us have newly returned to traditional Judaism and are re-exploring deep Jewish living. Many of us have chosen Judaism, a profound blessing to the Jewish family lucky enough to call each of us sister and brother. But along with these blessings comes a deep challenge. Given the newness of Judaism in so many of our lives, chosen and rediscovered, to what can we stand witness when it comes to the travails of Jewish history? How far back do our Jewish memories really go?
How willing have we been to forget what it is to be a Jew in the world?
Said simply: Have we forgotten that Jews are family, everywhere around the world, and that our family history is a difficult one? Or, perhaps are we only ready to defend those with whom we agree? If that’s the case, then every board of every Jewish community is in trouble. And if the boards of Jewish communities would be in trouble, what about THE Jewish community, who has one pulsing heart, known to the world by the name Jerusalem?
This isn’t a sermon that will point to the terrorism of Hamas, the instability and extremism of ISIS or Syria or Egypt, nor the obvious nuclear ambitions of Iran. I am also not going to spend these precious moments apologizing for Israel’s actions this summer, which I believe would be un-necessary. I’m “done” with that, as perhaps has become clear. Instead, at this holy hour, I’m calling upon each of you here (and those of you reading these words elswhere) to do one very difficult thing: please, look deep inside and remember.
Remember the pain. Let it in. It’s awful, but it is also the only authentic Jewish way. Our prayers on the High Holy Days are tinged, pervaded by vulnerability. It isn’t only the martyrology service of Yom Kippur afternoon. There are deep wounds buried in the recesses of the Jewish psyche. They are witness to Jewish history, even when we’d rather not be.
We are as active as we are – as JEWS – for universal justice because we were slaves in Egypt, exiled from our land in 586 BCE, exiled again from our land in 70 CE. Our holy books were burned in France in 1240, we were expelled from England in 1290, expelled from Spain in 1492, reviled on the Lower East Side of New York in 1902, massacred in Hebron in 1929, and butchered by the millions in such places as Auschwitz, Minsk, and Babi Yar in the 1940’s. The 1940’s!
This is a partial list, but it should be enough to explain one simple thing: The Jewish commitment to justice is borne of Jewish suffering.
Woe to us if we allow ourselves the delusion that Jewish suffering is a thing of the past.
If that wasn’t heavy enough, here’s a little more.
The power of having a state of our own has complicated all things Jewish.
Some have denied that anything has changed, but I know that when I visited the Israeli Navy Battleship “Cherev”, I felt a feeling of fear Jews have always known mixed with a feeling of resilience and protection Jews throughout time have not. If I need that boat, it’s coming for me. Something has definitely changed.
When I stood outside the Israeli Foreign Ministry this summer and witnessed, right above my head, the US-funded Iron Dome missile knocking out a mortar fired from Gaza, I felt an overwhelming mix of trauma and resolve. But we dare not take for granted the support of the United States for Israel. After all, America could have bombed Auschwitz’s train tracks and America would have allowed Neo-Nazi’s to march in Skokie, Illinois in the 1970’s had it not been for my friend and hero, Ben Stern. We are committed to advocating on behalf of our family in Israel – and must, because, to paraphrase Hillel, “If we are not for ourselves, who will be?”
Decades ago, a student of Elie Wiesel’s asked “Professor, there is a march in Solidarity with Soviet Jewry and a March against South African Apartheid at the same time this Sunday. Which one should I attend?” Wiesel famously answered, “You should go to both, of course. But let me ask you: If you go to the Anti-Apartheid rally, will anyone else march on behalf of Soviet Jewry?”
What has changed? We have a voice in determining our own destiny, however vulnerable we remain.
But there are other things, darker things, which have changed as well. These, even I would rather not remember. Because they aren’t about someone else. They’re about our own family.
Our history as a People without a home has also led us to be deeply afraid of engagement with others. Peace with the Arab nations that sought to destroy us, just “the wandering Aramean sought to destroy our ancestor,” is hard to believe possible. When Jews have pursued peace with our Arab neighbors, hatred and extremism has not only emerged from the outside.
A personal story:
During my trip to Israel this past summer with fellow progressive American rabbis, we visited the National Archive of Israel. I’m not allowed to divulge precisely where this building is located. Suffice it to say, it is hidden well. This geniza, this hidden place of our People’s memory, seemed to stretch out endlessly. I took photos of a few boxes and of some of the documents we were allowed to photograph. (Here is a link to the photos: http://tinyurl.com/RMCphotos5775)
And I thought this was the entire tour, which already had my heart racing with its implications. But then we were granted access to the rare book room of the National Archives, the holy of holies of our People’s national memory.
We walked into the room, rabbis representing different movements and streams, all bound together in what Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik z”l famously termed the “covenant of fate” and the “covenant of destiny.” We could barely breathe, it was that intense. The documents laid out before us each represented pivotal moments of our story.
We reached for them with tears in our eyes.
I held the United Nations’ voting sheet from November 29, 1947, tallying the countries that voted for or against the formation of the State of Israel. At the bottom of this page were the signatures of Abba Eban, Golda Meir, David Ben Gurion, and other founding mothers and fathers of the State of Israel.
I held in my hands the signed letter from President Harry Truman, recognizing the State of Israel, the first Head of State to do so.
I held in my hands the Hebrew news daily “Yom haMedinah” from May 14, 1948 whose headline read “Ha’Am Machriz al Medinat Yisrael – The Nation Declares the State of Israel” with a picture on the top right of the page of Theodore Herzl, arms enfolded, witness to the realization of the dream he has galvanized the Jewish People to pursue.
We will weren’t done with the table.
As I orbited this holy table of history, I came to a page written in elegant handwriting. It wasn’t Hebrew. I looked closer, realizing that it was in German, and then held, trembling in my own hands, a handwritten manuscript by Adolph Eichman, yemach shemo vezichro – may his name and memory be blotted out, from his trial in the State of Israel.
Across from this evil was an ornate box, containing one of six original, signed copies of the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, signed by Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, and Jimmy Carter on March 26, 1979.
But the roller coaster that was this room wasn’t over. There was one final box.
I stood next to our guide, a historian who saw in this room of rabbis an appreciation for Jewish history that even many modern Jews, in Israel and in the diaspora, don’t feel as deeply. He knew that, though we were in Israel to meet with elected officials and peacemakers, human rights activists and security experts, though we were enmeshed in the trauma of Hamas’ mortars being fired into Israel from the moment we arrived, he knew, saw from within our eyes, that this was a sacred place to us.
He saw we were steeped enough in Jewish history to step into it effortlessly, because, as the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in 1967, “I felt that my soul and history were one.”
This is what I wrote minutes after that horrifying experience:
I held a gun, and it wasn’t just any gun, and I don’t want to hold any gun, and it was this gun that killed Yitzhak Rabin z”l, and I held it in my trembling hands, and I couldn’t hold it and I couldn’t put it down and I couldn’t see it and I couldn’t close my eyes.
I was suddenly back at Bar Ilan University when I was in class with Yigal Amir, the man who killed Rabin, and I was back davening mincha in Washington DC being told that the Prime Minister had been shot and I was back on the streets of Oakland on the bloodied pavement where boys get shot and I was back being held in my mother’s arms and I was back in the White House screaming to power from the psychic pain and then I was back in that room, holding that gun, that awful, wretched thing that tore a hole in the world that we haven’t yet been able to fill, that even God can’t fill.
That damned gun that destroyed the world was in my helpless, trembling hands. I couldn’t remember how to move my hands to put it down.
I was, and am, and now always will be holding its cold dead history, its pain.
A Jew must always remember her own history, seeing the beauty and the ugliness of our family doing its best in a beleaguered world. Yes, in every generation people have arisen to destroy us. Yes, we have ugliness, not just imperfection, within our own People. Any other “narrative” is willful ignorance.
Do these truths absolve us from the command to defy history by using our hard-earned power ethically? Should we ignore how trauma has affected our ability to see the world through another’s eyes? No. But these truths have hard edges, ones we, as mostly-comfortable American Jews, would rather deny: that without power, accursed power, corrupting power, the terrible and necessary power of our own state, Jews would soon return to the never-ending cycle of suffering and assault.
Not that having a state ends Anti-Semitism or our own extremism, but it wields power on a global stage and grants our People its one refuge, our one safe harbor.
That dreadful moment holding that tool of death, a moment I haven’t been able to forget, one that robs me of sleep many a night, is a source of deep pain. It’s the worst kind of pain because we caused to ourselves, fearful that we would be vulnerable again, dependent upon someone else for our own safety. We can’t trust “them!” But then, after that moment, can we trust “us?”
Pain from without. Pain from within. Why am I bringing this to you all tonight? Maybe the feedback I got last Yom Kippur is correct. There’s enough discomfort out there. Why bring more in here?
My friends, I bring all this because we are not allowed to forget. This is who we are. We are, deep down, “am seridei charev – a People who survives the sword. (Jer. 31:1)” We have always been this.
I believe we cannot know God or one another if we do not know ourselves. We cannot daven as Jews if we are not praying from a place of Jewish experience. The way to perform tikkun olam, healing the world, is to begin deep within and heal ourselves and our family. For a Jew, that family has a heart. And our heart is thousands of miles to the East, though we here in Berkeley are at the ends of the West.
And so, here are three hard truths, truths I ask you to hold, to sit with tonight, to learn from for tomorrow.
One truth: Jews need each other. The world hasn’t yet been kind to the Jews, and that’s likely not going to change. If your heart has been closed to Israel because of the painful mistakes the Jewish State has made and continues to make, remember that that pain is also a part of you. Make the difficult decision to heal our family from within. There are many ways. Join our shul’s Mission to Israel this June. Go on your own. Open your heart. Get involved. Your family needs you, and we aren’t going to be a better family if we don’t talk, if we don’t connect heart to heart. Your Jewish heart might be the one to tip the scales of justice and love and goodness our People’s needs. We’ll probably make plenty of mistakes even with your gifts, and I imagine we’re not done with the pain, but wouldn’t it feel different to be the change you want to see in our little corner of the world?
The imperfection of our homeland, the most ambitious project-in-process of the Jewish People, is a reflection of our own imperfections. And perhaps that’s why so many Jews are more interested in looking somewhere else. But let’s confess right here, and right now. We are imperfect. We will never not be. And when we gather as a community, gevalt, we’re even less perfect. So when many, many of us are in one place, and that place is a country, it’s even further from perfect. But we also know “berov ha’am hadrat melech – when a nation gathers, more of God is revealed. (Pr. 14:28)”
It’s time to stand together, blemishes and all. It’s holier, it’s better, it’s even possibly corrective for a family when it stands together. Now is the time to stand together.
Second truth: We are commanded to hope, despite it all. Give each other (and our precious children) the hope our national anthem Hatikvah declares we haven’t lost yet. “Od lo avdah tikvateinu – we STILL haven’t given up hope.” What kind of a national anthem is that, anyway? We still haven’t lost our hope? Why would we say such a thing, inscribe it on the doors of our hearts, commit it to memory? The absurd and holy answer is that Jewish hope isn’t logical, and that that hasn’t stopped us yet. Somehow we’re here, somehow our shul community is bursting at the seams, somehow we are still doing good in the world, somehow we’re doing better than just making it. It doesn’t make sense. A Jew hopes anyway. Now is the time for hope.
Third truth: We are a tribe and we are global citizens. Jews know how to love the world precisely because we’ve known what it is to be despised. As Elie Wiesel has taught, based on his own Jewish experience, “human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.”
Yes, we will march for marriage equality and universal dignity.
Yes, we will march to end the New Jim Crow in America, uneven sentencing, profiling, mass incarceration, and a racist “war on drugs.” We will march to end the scourge of Gun Violence our politicians have yet to demonstrate the courage to face.
And yes, we will march for the State of Israel. We will march for our People, for our family. We will march for our home. We stand with Israel and seek her peace.
I stand before you tonight in a room with more pain than we’d wish for, in a community with more than enough love to share, a room full of people who are hopeful and nervous and anxious and determined and confused and beautiful and each a vessel of the divine – we are a Jewish community in service of the world with the potential to change everything.
And so I close tonight with a prayer that I ask you to join me in offering:
May the Jewish People be safe tonight. And tomorrow. And the day after that.
May the Jewish People look inward and fulfill the prophetic mandate continue building a society that embodies justice.
May the Jewish People look outward as well. May this morning’s call of Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel David Lau and the founder of the Islamic Movement Sheikh Abdullah Nimar Darwish to leaders of both Abrahamic faiths to hold meetings aimed at reducing inter-religious tensions in Israel be a model for peacemakers around the world.
May every person know peace, dear God. We really need it, and we could use some help.
May this beautiful, fragile world of ours be lifted “L’aylah U’laylah – higher and higher.” Beyond logic, beyond headlines, beyond loneliness and hurt.
May this year be one in which our world – and every inhabitant – be judged for life, and for peace.