Rosh Hashanah 5775 – Falling in Love Again

October 6, 2014

I fell in love when I was 16.  Looking back, it was a complicated relationship even back then.  I have learned that in a true relationship, it is possible to feel contradictory emotions at the same moment: Love and Frustrations; Hope and Disappointment.  You can be Inspired and feel Taken for Granted.

Who did I fall in love with? It was Israel.  I visited Israel for the first time when I was 16 years old and I fell in love with the Jewish Homeland.

On that first trip, I spent six weeks exploring the land along with other teens – and I was amazed. I fell in love with the landscape, the sites, the history, the efforts and sacrifices others had made on my behalf. I fell in love with a country that is rooted in the past and obviously striving forward.

I remember being awake late one night on a kibbutz in the Negev.  We were staying in Quonset huts. I could not sleep.  I recall looking at the stars that night and being filled with a sense of excitement. I thought about others before me who must have seen the same sky.  Millennia earlier, Moses had not been far from where we were.  Did he see these stars?  King David had run away in his youth and hidden in the mountains not far from there.  He must have seen these stars.  Philo in Alexandria; the Maccabees, even Theodore Herzl on his only trip to Palestine in 1898 must have glanced up and been inspired.

When I was 16, I fell in love with Israel.

Four years later in Israel, I met the woman who would become my wife.

Now decades later, my love of Israel is deep but it is not always easy.  My love of Israel is constant even as my heart is sometimes broken by circumstances.

People have advised rabbis not to talk about Israel this year.  They say it is too controversial.  People will get upset with me, with Israel, with Judaism.  I disagree. This was a tough summer no matter what your politics.

This summer, Israel came under attack from terrorists in the Gaza Strip.  Thousands of rockets and mortars were fired indiscriminately at Israeli homes, cities and towns – each with the intention to kill innocent civilians en masse. Israeli Christians, Israeli Muslims, Israeli Bedouins, Israeli Jews – all were the targets. All were under attack.

Israel, in turn, responded as any nation would—by defending its citizens. As the Israel Defense Forces carried out Operation Protective Edge, much of the international media expanded the attacks against Israel by reporting stories fed from the terrorist themselves. Headlines and images splashed across newspapers and screens of Israel’s alleged atrocities and war crimes.

Israel begins invasion of Gaza,” read The Washington Post on July 18 – as if Israel was the aggressor and ignoring the weeks of Hamas rockets landing in Israel.

AP tweeted: As much of world watches Gaza war in horror, members of Congress fall over each other to support Israel [1] as if supporting Israel was wrong.

I want to be clear. While war may be inevitable, its results are always ghastly.  This summer’s conflict was no different. Hamas’s calculated strategy of firing rockets from homes, hotels, schools and mosques was intended to draw Israel’s return fire. It was a blatant and brazen choice to put its own citizens in the line of fire and incur Palestinian civilian deaths. And yet how was Israel to stand quietly aside as rockets rained down on its people?

After fifty days of violence, the current ceasefire brokered by the Egyptians appears to be holding. Reports now suggest that many of the casualty numbers were skewed—that many graphic images circulated on social media purportedly resulting from Israeli attacks were actually taken from entirely different conflicts. Unfortunately, these corrections do little to correct the media’s one-sidedness against the Jewish state.  It is too little, too late.

Today, however, I want to tell you my concerns about Israel separate from the media’s bias or Hamas’ terror tunnels. My fear does not come from Israel’s external threats, though there are many.  It is internal.

I fear too many American Jews have fallen out of love with Israel.

I fear the term Zionism has morphed from a term of pride and hope for the Jewish People into a term of political rhetoric tinged with hatred and bigotry.  I fear we are growing weary of this conflict that continues to cycle without any progress towards peace.  I fear that for too many people, the bonds of our relationship with Israel are frayed.

These 50 days of conflict were different. The hatred that erupted against Israel and the Jewish People was blatant anti-Semitism. Incidents occurred in Germany, France, Britain, Australia, Italy, Austria and other countries.  We became afraid and ashamed.

I understand how this happened for some.  Like any nation, Israel bears the burden of imperfection.  When a gang of Israeli youth kidnapped and burned 16 year old Mohammed Abu Khdair alive, I was ashamed.  I could not accept that Jews acted so cruelly out of “revenge” for the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens.  After the Israeli boys’ funerals, Rachelle Fraenkel, Naftali’s mother said:

“Even in the abyss of mourning for Gilad, Eyal and Naftali, it is difficult for me to describe how distressed we are by the outrage committed in Jerusalem – the shedding of innocent blood is against morality, is against the Torah and Judaism, and is against the foundation of the lives of our boys and of all of us in this country.” [2]

The horrors the enemies inflict on us cannot dictate how we respond to them.

What’s worthy of consideration, however, is the stark contrast between Israel’s treatment of these criminals and the Palestinians’ veneration of theirs. Israel quickly arrested the vigilantes that killed the Arab youth and placed them in judicial hands, while in the West Bank and Gaza, the murderers were protected by Hamas.  This Tuesday, Israel found two of the attackers in Hebron.  They died in the effort to arrest them. [3]

And yet, I am aware of the frustrations of fellow congregants and community members— the fears that Israel is struggling to live up to its moral obligations, despite its tumultuous and terror-ridden neighborhood.

When Israel continues to appropriate land in the West Bank for political posturing, it does not matter if Israel has the right to do so or not – it is counter-productive. [4]

All these incidents corrode the Jewish soul.

It is bleeding onto college campuses and across social media. Did you hear about the Ohio University student senate president? She used the ALS ice bucket challenge for hate.  She called it the ‘blood bucket challenge.’ She wore a shirt saying ‘Divest From

Israel’ and poured blood like water over her head.  She said it was meant to raise awareness of Palestinians being killed by Israel. [5]

All of this has taken a great toll on us as a people.  How do we calculate it? How do we determine the spiritual cost on us when the legitimacy of Israel itself is being undermined?

We all must realize that while the conflict with the Palestinians is Israel’s burden, it is not Israel’s essence.

Today, I want to tell you: we don’t have to carry that burden of self-doubt.

It is time to reclaim the pride and ideals of Zionism.  It is time to love Israel with its ideals and values; to love its myths and even its imperfections and shortcomings. This is the time to fall in love again.

Far before the Shoah and earlier than Herzl, Zion has been part of the Jewish soul. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes:

“…the return to Zion was being thought about and acted on long before the Holocaust…. It goes back to the first recorded syllables of Jewish time, some four thousand years ago, when God told Abraham to leave his land, his birthplace and his father’s house to travel to ‘the land which I will show you.’  Seven times God promised the land to Abraham, once to Isaac and three times to Jacob…..  The whole of the Pentateuch – in a sense the whole of Jewish history – is about the long arduous journey to Israel, the Promised Land.” [6]

We have completed Abraham’s journey… yet we are only at the beginning. Our love of Israel cannot rest only on historical nostalgia or sacred narratives.

Rabbi Sacks continued:

“(The biblical prophets) understood that Israel’s survival depended less on military strength than on moral conviction, social justice and a cohesive sense of national identity.” [7]

Israel has proven its military strength – and that’s important – but it’s not what will keep Israel strongest, and it certainly is not what engenders our love.

Loving Israel can be different for everyone, but for me Israel embodies Judaism’s prophetic vision in 3 specific ways.  Let me explain:

עַַ֤ם סְגֻלָה, א֣וֹר לְגּוֹיִ֔ ם ,מַַֽעֲ קֶ֖ה לְגַ גֶּ֑ךָ taking extra precautions, being a light unto nations and being a Treasured People.

TAKE EXTRA PRECAUTIONS FOR SAFETY [8] מַַֽעֲ קֶ֖ה לְגַ גֶּ֑ךָ 

This is the command to take extra precautions so people are not injured – in this case by building a fence on your roof.  Looking at the rallies across Europe this summer, you may not believe that Israel took extraordinary precautions though.

In war, no other nation except Israel, warns the enemy before it attacks. No other country goes to such great lengths to protect civilian lives, by dropping leaflets and calling Palestinians’ cell phones to tell people to leave buildings.  No other army uses concussion devices to bounce off the buildings first, they called them ‘knocks on the door,’ to further ensure that innocent lives were saved. This summer, Israel went far beyond what any other nation does to protect civilians in a conflict zone… and still, war is horrible.





2. killing-offers-condolences


4. As delivered on Yom Kippur.

5. Movement-at-Ohio-University

6. Jonathan Sacks, Future Tense, p132-133

7. Sacks, p158

8. Deut. 22:8