Finding hope in Israel: Rosh HaShanah sermon 5775 / 2014

This sermon was delivered on the first day of Rosh haShanah, 5775 (2014), at the United Synagogue of Hoboken, New Jersey.

When Naftali Hertz Imber opened up the newspaper, he could not believe what he was reading.

As he sat there that day in 1878, in the city of Iasi, in Romania, he saw a small item in a Jewish newspaper that said that for the first time in hundreds of years, there were to be Jewish farmers farming the land of Israel.

Imber, a Jewish poet in his early 20’s, had many reasons to be surprised by this news.  The Jewish communities that he knew, in Eastern Europe, were mostly poor - some were urban, some were rural, but virtually none of the Jews were farming the land, as Jews were generally not permitted to own land.  No matter how many years or decades or centuries their families had dwelled in an Eastern European village or region, they were still regarded as foreigners, people who really belonged somewhere else, living on land that belonged to others.  Sometimes they got along well with their neighbors, and sometimes not.  They often had to cope with anti-Jewish attitudes and even anti-Jewish violence.  Even in the best of times, they often felt like they were walking a tightrope.  Even many of those who tried to shed their Jewish identities and to blend in to the surrounding society were unable to do so.  In that era, the Jewish holiday that best summed up the existential state of the Jewish people around the world was the fast day of Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, the day that commemorates the exile of Jews from the land of Israel -- their transformation from a people living in its own land, to a people living as a beleaguered minority everywhere.

Imber also knew something about the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael, in Palestine of that time.  It was a mostly urban community, in Jerusalem and a handful of other cities, and mostly impoverished, living at the mercy of the Ottoman Empire.   It was quite a religious community, with a disproportionate number of elderly Jews from around the world who had migrated to the land of Israel at an advanced age so that they could at least return to die there.  And the community would not have been able to sustain itself financially were it not for the charity they received from Jews around the world.  It was no less precarious an existence as Jews had in Eastern Europe.  The city gates of Jerusalem were locked up each night, and woe to any Jew who missed the curfew and was locked out of the city and at risk of bandits or worse.

And yet, as Imber read in his newspaper, a group of  young Jews from Jerusalem in the mid-1870’s developed this crazy idea:  we should move outside of Jerusalem.  We should purchase some land, we should start farming the land, the way our ancestors did thousands of years ago.  And this will be our first step towards economic self-sufficiency, and a first step towards regaining our people’s dignity.  Despised and powerless throughout most of the world, regarded as foreigners almost everywhere -- this land, the land of Israel, should be one place where we are not regarded as foreigners, and where we can re-establish our bond with the land that is our heritage.

And Naftali Hertz Imber read that they had purchased some land not far from the Mediterranean sea, to establish an agricultural community to be called “Petach Tikvah” -- which could be translated as ‘An Opening to Hope,’ or ‘The Door to Hope.’ And Naftali Hertz Imber was transfixed - by the idea of the Jewish community’s commitment to transform and revive itself, and by the name of this community: Petach Tikvah, the Door to Hope.

And he responded the way you would expect a young poet to respond to an event that moved him deeply.  he wrote a poem, called “Tikvateinu," meaning ‘our hope.’   It was a long poem with 9 stanzas and a refrain.  Decades later, it would be set to music.  And I invite you now to listen, as the choir sings one of its less familiar stanzas:
'For as long as tears continue to flow from our eyes like generous rain,
and for as long as countless of our fellow men and women visit the graves of our ancestors,
Then our hope is not yet lost - the ancient hope -
that we will return to the land of our ancestors, to the city where David encamped.’

Each stanza of the poem ‘Tikvateinu’ pointed out some way that the Jewish people had maintained their connection to the land of Israel throughout 2000 years of exile.  Facing Jerusalem in prayer. Reciting mournful midnight prayers for Jerusalem’s welfare. Mourning on the fast day of the 9th of Av.  Recalling the exile and praying for redemption.  For as long as we do all these things, then עוד לא אבדה תקוותינו - od lo avdah tikvateinu, our hope is not yet lost.

By now you realize that I’ve been sharing with you the history of Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah -the Hope.  But this was still long long before anyone thought it would ever be the anthem of anything.  (Or that there would ever be anything that it could be the anthem of.)   It was just a poem expressing a yearning for a land, for a home -- and noting the persistence of a tikvah, a hope, that the Jewish people’s
status as a homeless, powerless, pariah people was not a PERMANENT status.

Imber knew his Bible.  And when he wanted to choose the most evocative phrase in his poem, he went right to the book of Ezekiel, to Ezekiel’s Vision of Dry Bones - which to him was emblematic of the status of the Jews of his day.  The prophet Ezekiel had a vision in which he beholds a valley full of bones, the sad remnant of a nation long dead.  But gradually, remarkably, he saw the resurrection of these bones. as per the gospel song: 'the toe bone connected to the foot bone, the foot bone connected to the heel bone...'  The bones connected to each other, and muscle and flesh grew on them and, against all odds, against all logic, they became living and breathing human beings again.  And God says to Ezekiel: these bones are the people of Israel in exile. They say:  יבשו עצותינו yavshah atzmoteinu - our bones are dry, ואבדה תקוותינו - ve-avdah tikvateinu, and our hope is lost.

But Ezekiel, tell them: Thus says the God of Israel:  הִנֵּה אֲנִי פֹתֵחַ אֶת קִבְרוֹתֵיכֶם וְהַעֲלֵיתִי אֶתְכֶם מִקִּבְרוֹתֵיכֶם עַמִּי וְהֵבֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם אֶל אַדְמַת יִשְׂרָאֵל.  I will open up your graves, and will bring you out of your graves, and revive you, and bring you to the land of Israel. וְנָתַתִּי רוּחִי בָכֶם וִחְיִיתֶם  And I will breathe my spirit into you, and you will live again.

Ezekiel’s dry bones say אבדה תקוותנו- avdah tikvateinu -  our hope is lost.  And so Imber uses as the refrain of his poem ‘od lo avdah tikvateinu’ - unlike the dry bones, our hope is not yet lost.  Imber saw that the future of the Jewish people still seemed terribly dim, with Jews oppressed, feeling a profound sense of exile and dislocation.   And  yet, ‘od lo avdah tikvateinu’ - our hope is not yet lost.  And one small agricultural community could even become the Petach Tikvah, the portal to hope, of the renewal of a people.

Apparently it was this resonant line in Imber’s poem, ‘od lo avdah tikvateinu,
‘our hope is not yet lost,’ that captured the mood of a generation and was pivotal to the selection of Hatikvah as the anthem of the Zionist movement, and eventually the anthem of the state of Israel.

If you think Ezekiel’s words were powerful in 1878, imagine the impact of these words in 1948, when literally, living corpses, flesh and bones survivors of the Shoah had nowhere else to go in the world - every door closed to them - until the door of Eretz Yisrael became open for them,
And they passed almost literally from their graves into the land of Israel.   Just as, metaphorically, the Jewish nation had been a corpse left for dead, that was then revived between those years of 1945 and 1948.

Od Lo Avdah Tikvateinu - our hope was not yet lost.  The Shoah had demonstrated the tragic consequences of a world without a refuge for the Jewish people.  But the creation of the modern State of Israel demonstrated that this nation could be revived and could again thrive.  Rabbi Haskel Lookstein has written that before the state of Israel, Jews were bent over like question marks -- and Israel gave us the confidence to stand up tall like exclamation marks.

I shared the story of Imber and Hatikvah with you because of course Israel is on my mind - but before talking about Israel of 2014, I thought it would be useful to turn back the clock to try to understand the tikvah, the hope, that modern Israel represents.  To appreciate that among the reasons  for the confidence and self-assuredness of Jews around the world today, including in Hoboken, is tied directly to the existence of Israel,  to the fact that there are Jews SOMEWHERE in the world who aren’t a minority.  To the fact that there is NO ONE who would say today that the holiday that best embodies the existential status of the Jewish people is the Fast Day of the 9th of Av.  Today, rather, we would probably say that the holiday that best sums up the condition of Jews around the world is Passover, as the Jewish people worldwide collectively again traveled from slavery to freedom.

This is certainly not the LAST word to say about Israel, but certainly it frames my thoughts about Israel, today and every day.
I have to interrupt myself to note that according to Tuesday’s New York Times, I’m not supposed to be giving this sermon.

You may have seen the article this week about how there are many rabbis who are not planning to talk about Israel during the High Holidays because it is such a divisive topic - that it is simply impossible to have a civil conversation about Israel in many Jewish communities.  Let me tell you emphatically that that has NOT been my experience in this community whatsoever.  This is a community where on almost every shabbat morning we engage in dialogue and discussion, highlighting that this is a place where diverse opinions are welcome.  Here, we speak all the time about how respectful disagreement has been something Jewish communities have sought to achieve for millennia.  And this is a community where I don’t shy away from talking about Israel, and WE don’t shy away from talking about Israel.  with the presumption that we all may agree in part and disagree in part.  (Actually, I am presuming that most people who are here will find at least something that I am saying today with which you will agree, and at least something with which you will disagree.  And I am even more confident that there will be something you wish I had said that I didn’t.)

I could not possibly not speak about Israel because when it comes down to it, Israel is us.  As I wrote in an email to the synagogue community at the height of the conflict this summer:  “For us in the Hoboken Jewish community, this is not some abstract conflict in some far-away and irrelevant place in the world.  It’s not only that the Jewish people worldwide has a special bond with the Land of Israel and its people.  Our synagogue has a nearly innumerable quantity of links with people in Israel this summer - Israelis who have lived temporarily in the Hoboken area; people from our synagogue community who have made aliyah and now reside in Israel; people from our community who are traveling or studying in Israel this summer; and numerous relatives and friends of our members.  People from all these categories, individuals who are very dear to our community, have heard air raid sirens and had to race to bomb shelters in Israel repeatedly because of Hamas missiles being shot in their direction.”  And that includes numerous people who are in this room right now who endured that this summer.  All these people and their loved ones, and so many of us, are so intensely grateful for the Iron Dome missile defense system, without which this summer’s unprovoked missiles from Hamas would have struck their civilian targets, and a terribly painful summer in Israel would have been even more painful.  And that’s one of the reasons why hundreds of us gathered together right here in July as we hosted a regional rally in this sanctuary in solidarity with the people of Israel.

Just about every possible controversy connected to modern Israel was expressed in a big way this year- even before the war in Gaza began:  
  • The breakdown of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority sparked accusations from each side that the other side was not truly a partner committed to peace.
  • The kidnapping and then murder of three Israeli teens by Hamas affiliates highlighted the brutal cruelty of some of Israel’s adversaries - motivated both by nationalism and by a terrifying strain of Islamist extremism, and no less brutal to their own people as to Israel.
  • The kidnapping and then murder of a Palestinian teen by Jewish extremists highlighted that, to the shame of the Jewish people, that brutal cruelty of Israel’s enemies is sadly matched by some Jews.
  • The Hamas rockets from Gaza, terrified the 80% of Israel’s population that is within rocket range --- attacks that, in a rare-moment of pan-Arab solidarity, were severely condemned by Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, and the Arab League.
  • The Hamas tunnels served as a reminder that Israel may have military superiority,  but its size, and its proximity to those who seek its destruction, will always make it vulnerable.
  • And the Israeli attacks on Hamas, highlighting the heartbreaking destruction that wars inevitably cause.

This summer, one of my friends from Israel posted the following on Facebook.  It was titled  “havharah הבהרה - clarification”:
זה שאני חושבת על החיילים, לא אומר שאני לא חושבת על הילדים,
“The fact that I'm thinking of the [welfare of Israeli] soldiers doesn't mean that I'm not thinking of the [welfare of the] children of Gaza.
זה שאני חושבת על הילדים, לא אומר שאני לא חושבת על תושבי שדרות,
The fact that I’m thinking of the welfare of the children of Gaza doesn’t mean I’m not thinking of the people of Sderot [in Southern Israel, dealing with constant rocket attacks].”
And she went on:
“The fact that I'm thinking of the people of Sderot doesn't mean I'm not terrified of right wing incitement [in Israel].
The fact that I'm terrified of right wing incitement doesn't mean I'm not opposed to Hamas….”
My friend was expressing that so often people in a conflict paint the other as being entirely one-dimensional and predictably one-sided, when actually, many on both sides are more multi-dimensional, more sensitive to all human pain, and less predictable than we might imagine.

Most of us are aware that there is plenty to criticize about Israel.  If that were not the case, it would not be a nation-state.  Or, in the famous words of Amos Oz:  "[Israel]  is a dream come true, as such [is] bound to be flawed, otherwise it would still be a dream."   There is a vigorous debate in Israel on virtually every question related to Israel’s security, the peace process, Israel’s relationships with its neighbors, its military tactics, even what it could have done differently in the leadup to this summer’s conflict and during the war itself.  It’s a level of discourse with a free and open press that you won’t find elsewhere in the middle east.  The Midrash tells us, כל אהבה שאין עמה תוחכה אינה אהבה - ‘Love unaccompanied by constructive criticism is not true love,’
and those who engage seriously with Israel will, not infrequently, disagree with Israeli policy decisions.

And at the same time, a huge percentage of the criticism of Israel in the world is so thoroughly intertwined with anti-Jewish sentiment of the most base variety, and a not insignificant portion of the criticism of Israel in the world holds Israel up to a standard to which no other nation is held.
And so I would say to those who are inclined to be especially critical of Israel: please don’t do it in a way that would give the impression that you are indifferent to the very genuine suffering of Israelis, and Israel’s challenging predicament in its difficult neighborhood with its particular adversaries.  This is what the Israeli writer Amos Oz was conveying when this summer he gave an interview to a German newspaper and began by saying: “I would like to begin the interview in a very unusual way: by presenting one or two questions to your readers and listeners.Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?  Question 2: What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?  With these two questions I pass the interview to you.”  And this icon of the Israeli left also shared his thoughts about Hamas:  ‘I have been a man of compromise all my life. But even a man of compromise cannot approach Hamas and say: 'Maybe we meet halfway and Israel only exists on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.'
Sometimes the situation does appear as hopeless as it was for Ezekiel in his era or Imber in his.  The dream of Israel living at peace in its own land, at peace with the Palestinians and at peace with all its neighbors, is painfully elusive.  Sometimes the dream of peace seems as dead as Ezekiel’s dry bones - and we cry out in pain, אבדה תקוותינו - our hope is lost.  We have lost all hope for peace.

But 130 years ago, at a time that was no less as bleak, Naftali Hertz Imber was able to find a Petach Tikvah - an opening to hope, a portal to hope.  And similarly today, I find myself drawn to stories about such hope-openings.  I find it to be my responsibility, to find such stories and to share them.  I will share with you just a few of them.  These are all small stories -- but even a small story can be a Petach Tikvah, an opening to hope, just as the original Petach Tikvah was a very small experiment, a tiny agricultural community.

I think of the story of Yishai Frenkel, the uncle of Israeli teenager Naftali Frenkel of blessed memory, who together with Gilad Shear and Eyal Yifrakh, was kidnapped and murdered this summer. As it happens, long before the terrible situation this summer, Yishai Frenkel had been profiled in Forbes Magazine, because he works for the Jerusalem office of Intel, the computer chip manufacturer, with the responsibility for forging links and partnerships between Intel and the Palestinian hi-tech community. Actually, it may be simply eye-opening for some simply to know that there is someone who has this job, and that there are such links to be created, and  that  a religious, kippah-wearing Jew in the person hired by Intel to be the liaison with Palestinians in high-tech and that he’s been doing a great job.  The Forbes reporter who had written that profile caught up with Yishai Frenkel about 2 weeks after his nephew was abducted.  And Frenkel noted that numerous of his Palestinian contacts in the high-tech community in Ramallah contacted him to express their concern about his kidnapped nephew and to indicate they were keeping him in their prayers.

Then, later, it was also Yishai Frenkel who extended words of comfort and consolation to the father of murdered Arab teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir.  He also issued a statement from the Frenkel family immediately after that heinous murder, saying “murder is murder. whatever the nationality and age are, there is no justification, no forgiveness or penance for any murder.’  

There were busloads and busloads of Israelis from all across the political spectrum visiting the Abu Khdeir family’s mourning tent - essentially the Muslim equivalent of paying a shiva call.   By most accounts those visits were tense - but appreciated - that people in pain were reaching out to each other on a human level.

There are stories like this every day. The young Jewish couple who live in a West Bank settlement who were driving through an Arab village when someone through a stone that hit the husband who was driving, and he lost control of the car which ended up overturned in a ditch. And then dozens of Palestinians came forward and helped the family, got medical attention for them, and they credit their survival to these Palestinian villagers doing the right thing on a human-to-human level.  A story paralleled by the numerous examples of Palestinians treated at Israeli hospitals, or assisted by the wide range of Israeli non-profit organizations that seek to improve the lives of those in poverty in Israel’s region regardless of national origin.

And a story I just heard this week from a family formerly of Hoboken, now living in Israel.  This family has a friend who is a 28-year old Israeli university student, who grew up on a kibbutz near the Israeli side of the border with Gaza.  This summer he was absolutely stunned to hear his father speaking Arabic on the phone.  He had never had Arab kids in his school or his social circles, and he had certainly never heard his father speak Arabic before.  But his parents remembered a time when the border was open, and his father was calling some friends in Gaza to reach out to them, to express his concern and to let them know he was thinking of them.  And to let his son know that not everyone living in Gaza is a radical extremist.

Or I think of my college friend Rebecca Bardach and her work with a school for Jewish and Arab kids in Jerusalem, where they have a mural on the buiding that says in Hebrew, English and Arabic:   ‘מסרבים להיות אויבים - we refuse to be enemies.’

My colleague Rabbi Arik Ascherman likes to point out that there are solid majorities of Israeli and Palestinians who say they want a negotiated agreement - but each side simply doesn't believe that the other side truly wants peace.

All these are among the Pitchei Tikvah, the openings of hope, that animate me - that remind me and inspire me even when the situation appears bleak.

Yes, these are all small stories.  But let me tell you a secret:  The original Petach Tikvah agricultural community in 1878:  It was an abject failure.  Within a year, some of the original founders had died of malaria.  They couldn’t get their crops to grow.  Those who survived gave up and moved back to Jerusalem.  As an agricultural experiment, it was a failure. But nevertheless, it was still a Petach Tikvah - a hope-opening.  And that attempt inspired more attempts.  There were more failures.  But there were also successes.  And more successes.  All leading up to today, where for all of Israel’s challenges, it is indubitably one of the Jewish people’s greatest achievements.

Whether we’re talking about Israel, or any event or experience in our lives, there’s a difference between hope and optimism.  Hope is a much richer, much fuller and more serious feeling than optimism.  If ‘optimism’ is the confidence that things WILL get better, ‘hope’ is an acknowledgment that WE CAN MAKE THINGS get better.  Author and playwright Jean Kerr said, "Hope is the feeling you have, that the feeling you have, isn't permanent." When I experience hope, I do not deny that I may be at a difficult place in my life.  But hope reminds me that this difficult place is not where I need to stay - that what looks permanent in my life - in fact can change.

And as political scientist Gil Troy has written:  “A century ago, the notion of a strong, independent, viable, sovereign Jewish State was an impossible dream and yet absolutely worth fighting for –  so, too, today, the notion of a strong, independent, viable, sovereign Jewish State living in  true peace and harmony with its neighbors appears to be an impossible dream and yet absolutely worth striving for.”

And so we pray, in the words of the Rosh HaShanah Amidah we are about to recite:
ובכן תן כבוד ה’ לעמך
Give honor to Your people, and help Your people to be honorable;
תהילה ליראיך
Give praise to those who revere You, and help those who revere You to be praiseworthy;
ותקוה לדורשיך
And to those who seek you, grant hope.


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