Return to Previous Page
Rabbi Jack Moline Website
Home | Profile | Works | Links
Giant Grapes and Underwear from Israel
Rosh HaShanah I, 5768/2007
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Thank you for your interest in my High Holy Day sermon. I hope you enjoy reading it. Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end! Jack Moline

A long time ago in a far away place – Danbury, CT, to be exact – a young rabbi began his sermon on the night of Yom Kippur by pulling out a Big Mac and saying to the congregation, "What would you do if I took a bite of this sandwich right now?" The standing-room-only crowd of 200 erupted into a combination of laughter, objection and one memorable, "If you're only taking one bite, can I have the rest?" There was a point to what I said after that – it had to do with vicarious Jewish observance -- but it became known as my cheeseburger sermon.

Today's sermon may well be known as the underwear sermon. That piece of information may be enough to keep you awake for a few minutes, but, as Elle Woods once said, "I have a point, I promise." So here we go.

A number of my colleagues are in the practice of asking their congregants what they think the rabbi should talk about on the High Holy Days – and then they write sermons based on that input. I have discussed the research technique with them, and it seems to work pretty well in many Midwestern cities and smaller communities. My impression is that it doesn't work so well in New York and LA for different reasons. I can tell you that it does not work in Alexandria, VA.

It's not that I have tried it, mind you. It is that in a metropolitan area overrun by politicians and lobbyists, no one actually waits for me to ask. I am approached with some regularity by people who want me to address not just a certain topic, but to do so by promoting a particular perspective. I am going to give you a couple of examples without attaching any names. To the two congregants who will recognize their positions, I assure you that only people you yourself have told about our conversations will know who you are.

Today's topic is Israel. One particular member believes that the number one issue in the world today is the war that is being waged upon us by the enemies of democracy. Those enemies have chosen Israel as the first target of annihilation. This person tells me that he does not want to hear from the pulpit about matters she or he considers peripheral to that danger, like social welfare or same-sex marriage. And he or she certainly is not interested in hearing anything sympathetic to the religion from which this bitter antagonism grows. Those conversations are for after the war.

Another member believes that the number one issue in the world today facing Jews is the crisis of values in Israeli society. The corruption of ethics regarding the treatment of Arab citizens, the integrity of government officials, the policy regarding African refugees and the intersection of security concerns and territorial control has compromised the Zionist dream. This person contends that the state and its Jewish supporters present Israel to the world as privileged by its history and traditions, but that it is in reality a hypocritical and deteriorating society and we all ought to wake up before it is too late.

There is a certain irony in these competing visions. Part of that irony is that, at some level, I agree with both of them. Listening to my synopsis of two longer exchanges, you might think that I am talking out of both sides of my mouth when I say that, but rest assured that lots of people much wiser than I see the essential truth in both positions. What I do not hear – though you may – is an exclusive truth in either position.

The larger irony in these visions is that they give expression to the larger problem that faces Israel in the world today. Whether you consider the biggest threat to Israel as coming from within, or the biggest threat to Israel as coming from without, the common denominator is that when you think of Israel, you think immediately of "threat." It's not an unusual state of mind for Jews. The experience of close to 3500 years of Jewish history is one of constant danger. I won't repeat the now-familiar joke about the basis of every Jewish holiday, but when you consider our happiest times, you discover that we are threat-obsessed. This week, we are threatened with inscription in the Book of Death. In two weeks, we wave a palm branch and shout, Save us, save us! On Chanukkah, the Greco-Assyrians threatened to assimilate us, on Purim the Persians threatened to annihilate us, on Pesach the Egyptians threatened to drown us, on Shavuot God threatened to drop a mountain on us, and on Tisha B'av we remember all the successful threats against us and persuade ourselves that more threats lie just around the corner.

Shelo echad bilvad amad aleinu l'khaloteinu, elah sheb'khol dor va'dor omdim aleinu l'khaloteinu, "Not just one enemy tried to destroy us, but in every generation our enemies try to destroy us." Listen, I believe in the old adage "just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean they aren't out to get you," but after thousands of years of threats, wouldn't it be nice to think about things from a different perspective for a few minutes?

If you love Israel – and both my hawk and my dove love Israel – there must be something to love other than the heartache, other than the anxiety, other than the malaise. I would be happy to tell you that the beauty of the land itself is enough, but the fact is that as beautiful as I find the land of Israel, I have also been swept away by the mountains and the prairies and the oceans white with foam, by spacious skies and amber waves of grain.

What is important about Israel is not just geography, and it is not just history, and it is not just strategic or ethical considerations. What is important about Israel, cutting across the very real boundaries of religious and secular Jews, Israeli and Diaspora Jews, Jews and non-Jews, philo-semites and anti-semites is that Israel is an organic and living Jewish society. It is not a recreation of the Bible, as some Christians would like. It is not a recreation of the Talmud, as some Jews would like. It is not a recreation of the Caliphate, as some Muslims would like. Israel is the one place where Judaism, Jewish culture, Jewish identity, Jewish destiny are all expressed as a living, breathing contemporary society without answering to terms and conditions set by someone else.

And so what I hope to do during these next few minutes is to share with you some of the fruits of that living, breathing contemporary society. I hope to give you good reason to think of Israel as a wonderful place, a valuable place, a desirable place – not a place of conflict and threat. But just so you know that this effort to change the way we think about the Holy Land is not without precedent, allow me to go back 3000 years and remind you of a section of the Torah not so many of you heard in this room back on the ninth of June.

It is not this morning's portion – which is about the threat Sarah feels from Hagar – or tomorrow's portion – which is about the threat Isaac feels from Abraham. This section is deep into the book of Numbers, Bemidbar. And it includes these words:

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, Send men who will search the land of Canaan which I give unto the children of Israel: of every tribe…send a man, every one a ruler among them. And Moses, by the Lord's commandment, sent them from the wilderness of Paran: all those men were heads of the children of Israel...

And Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said unto them, Go up this way southward, and go up into the mountain and see the land, what it is; and the people that live there, whether they are strong or weak, few or many; and what the land is that they dwell in, whether it is good or bad; and what cities there are that they dwell in, whether in tents, or in strong holds; and what the land is, whether it is fat or lean, whether there is wood there or not. And be of good courage, and bring some of the fruit of the land…

And they came unto the brook called Eshkol, and cut down from there a single branch with one cluster of grapes, and they carried it between two men upon a pole; and they brought pomegranates, and figs. The place was called the brook Eshkol (meaning cluster), because of the cluster of grapes which the children of Israel cut down from there. And they returned from searching the land after forty days.

I acknowledge leaving out a few details – names of the spies, for example. I don't want to embarrass them. But understand what you just heard. A dozen brave representatives of the people went into the land to scout it out. At Moses' instruction, they brought back a bunch of grapes from one branch of one vine that was so big it had to be carried by two men holding a pole horizontally, resting on their shoulders. They brought back pomegranates and figs. The people who had been marching through the desert had complained about a lack of decent food; what they desired most was a variety in their diet, maybe a little something to aid digestion and compensate for that Passover kind of feeling. The produce of the land included a bunch of grapes so big it had to be held five feet off the ground to be carried.

This image is so powerful that it became adopted by the Ministry of Tourism of the State of Israel to illustrate the abundance of the land. The logo has been cycled out of contemporary usage, but if you want to see what it looked like, look at the bottom of page 32 in your reflection booklet. Try getting those groceries in the back of your minivan.

You would think – you would think! – that the image people would have of the land promised to their ancestors, the destination of their wanderings, the reason for their liberation from slavery would have been a paradise. But listen to what happens next:

And they went … to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the children of Israel to the wilderness of Paran, to Kadesh; and brought back word to the entire congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. And they told and said, We came unto the land where you sent us, and surely it flows with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it. Nevertheless the people that live in the land are strong, and the cities are walled, and very big; moreover we saw the children of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the south: and the Hittites, and the Jebusites, and the Amorites, dwell in the mountains: and the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and by the coast of Jordan.

A land that flows with milk and honey is a pretty miraculous place. Milk, after all, comes from cows – domesticated animals that need to be tended. Honey, after all, is contained in the comb unless it is harvested from the bees by skilled keepers. Giant fruit in great abundance, resources beyond imagination. But the scouts were speaking to former slaves, people used to expecting the worst and who believed themselves powerless. And so when they mentioned their own fears about powerful and hostile locals – well, it was enough.

Only two spies, Caleb and Joshua, took a different approach. But it was to no avail.

And Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, Let's go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it. But the men that went up with him said, We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we. And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched to the Israelites, saying, The land, which we have searched, is a land that eats up its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. And we saw the giants there, the sons of Anak, the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and in their sight, too.

Eretz okhelet yoshveha, a land that eats up its inhabitants. Clusters of succulent grapes in abundance, armloads of pomegranates, trees heavy with figs. There is so much milk and so much honey and the people to tend and harvest them that the land virtually flows with nourishing sweetness. But all that the ten scouts could say, all that people could hear was eretz okhelet yoshveha, a land that eats up its inhabitants.

It is a deeply rooted Jewish tradition to be overwhelmed by the problems surrounding the Promised Land. The people who live there are big and mean, and fierce giants who make us feel small, amoral marauders who attack our weakest flank to terrorize us into defeat. And within the land? We'll have no chance to enjoy its apparent abundance. The land, with all its problems, consumes the people who live there.

Look, as I said before, I agree with my interlocutors. Israel is surrounded by giants who are intent on terrorizing us into oblivion. And within Israel there is enough corrosive controversy to eat away at the soul of the nation if left unchecked. We would be foolish to ignore either one of those realities and suicidal to ignore them both. From a point of view of religious faith, of historical awareness, of simple love of family, it is horrifying to imagine a world without Israel, a world in which either of those two threatening circumstances plays out to its disastrous conclusion.

My goal, however, is to begin to change your way of thinking about Israel. My goal today is to suggest to you that the first thought that should come into your mind when you hear about Israel is not about threats, but about giant bunches of grapes and nourishing and sweet streams.

And so I want to show you a sample, just a sample, of the modern day figs and pomegranates that have come bounding out of this living, breathing contemporary Jewish society forty years after the refugees from enslavement turned to the next generation. I want to show you just a sample of how Israel is a part of your life, as close to you as your fingertips, your eyes, your ears, your skin, your very heart.

Do you know that the top four destinations for venture capital outside the United States are China, India, Canada and Israel? With a total population that is a fraction of some of India's cities, some of China's provinces, some of Canada's metropolitan areas, Israel has produced a generation of dreamers and thinkers and innovators and inventers whose training and motivation directly impacts your life every single day.

This is a laptop computer. Inside is an Intel Centrino chip – designed, developed and manufactured in Israel, just like the Pentium Duo and the next generation of chips. Intel has a major plant in Israel, not because the labor is cheap, but because it is skilled. Loaded onto this computer is America On-line's Instant Messenger – AIM. Instant messaging was invented by four Israeli teenagers who were looking for a way to communicate more quickly with each other. The firewall that protects this computer from malicious intrusions was developed in Israel as a partnership between private industry and the security infrastructure of the government.

See this little pill? Of course you don't, unless you brought a pair of binoculars. Take a look at the fingernail on the pinky of your left hand. In a pill smaller than that, a wireless camera able to take pictures in complete darkness travels through the human digestive system to examine and aid in the diagnosis of intestinal cancer at its earliest stages without invasive surgery. On the other end of the scale is the current generation of magnetic resonance imaging machines and Computed Axial Tomography scanners which would not exist without Israeli technology. With an MRI or a CAT scan your doctor can look at the structure of your spine, the surface of your lung, the condition of your heart and save your life.

Nothing other than life is more sacred to us than books. You will find this book in the Library of Congress, one of 130 million items, including 29 million more books. You will find it in the Library of Congress because Israel's Aleph software system is in place to track all 130 million items. There are 1200 other major libraries in 50 countries that employ this software.

Here's something that has become a part of your life, my life and the life of just about everyone you know. Every cell phone in use today uses an Israeli algorithm to translate analog to digital. Some say the cell phone was invented in Israel, but even if it wasn't, the development of a wireless communication infrastructure as an alternative to landlines was an Israeli innovation. And I don't mind letting a call go to voicemail, because more than 80% of the voicemail boxes in the world are created and operated by Israeli software.

And what have we here? This is a brand-new pair of Nordstrom brand women's bikini-style seamless underwear. Not since I was spotted buying a Big Mac an hour before Yom Kippur have I had a stranger shopping experience, though I was asked the same question both times – Is this for you? I am willing to bet that most of the men in the congregation have underwear, sandals, sleepwear, shoes or some other item of clothing with a label that says "Made in Israel." But men, ask your wives, your daughters, your girlfriends about the importance of seamless underwear to both comfort and appearance.

Your clothing, your communication, your education, your health and the thousands of applications on your computer and your other electronics are the fruits that have come out of Israel in abundance. It is a land flowing with the nourishing milk of inventiveness and the sweet honey of success. And you can ask anyone who lives in Israel, including the emissary sent to our Northern Virginia community, Shiri Rahamin, that life in Israel is filled with the same kinds of blessings and challenges we take as a matter of course in the United States. Far from being eretz okhelet yoshveha, Israel has fulfilled in many ways, in fact in most ways the mandate to be la'or goyim, as a light of nations, especially if that light glows on the screen of a cell phone.

Even the terrorists who plot against Israel communicate with each other in ways that would not exist if it were not for their Zionist enemy.

Am I telling you that because you can make a phone call from your car you shouldn't worry about civil rights in Israel? Don't be silly. Am I telling you that now that your panty lines have disappeared, so has the nuclear threat from Iran? Please, I am not a moron.

I do appeal to you, however, not on the basis of mitzvah and not on the basis of Godly promises and not on the basis of topological anomalies to ignore those ten spies who quivered with fear and set us on a path of neurotic worrying. Instead I want you to look at the fruits of the land and at the enthusiasm of Caleb and Joshua whose optimism and resolve allowed our ancestors to establish the first living, breathing contemporary society of Jews. I have offered you only an accessible morsel of those universal gifts; I cannot begin to describe the depth of these contributions in other scientific fields, in music and art, in general academics, in keeping innocent people alive in public places and, of course, in animating our diverse Jewish people. If you want to know what we are capable of, what we are able to contribute to the rest of the world, what we can do to make this world a better, closer, more intimate place, where information is freely shared and the plight of the oppressed cannot go ignored, then rejoice in the wonder that is Israel. Hold it dear, because everything we have promised to do if given half a chance is better able to come to be in the Promised Land. Liberate yourself from the slavery of constant worry and empower yourself with the joy of accomplishment.

Gimmicks. I used gimmicks in this sermon – a ringing telephone, a pair of underpants, a couple of conversations I could exploit. But the message is no gimmick. Israel is part of your life, a part of your Christian neighbor's life, a part of your Muslim neighbor's life, a part of Jimmy Carter's life, of Christiane Amanpour's life, a part of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's life, Giant Grapes and Underwear from Israel, to make a thousand distinctions. When you think of Israel, before you think of Hamas and Hezbollah and security fences and checkpoints, think of the thousands of ways this tiny country has made your world a better place.

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my cell phone lose its signal.

Home | Profile | Works | Links

Comments or Questions? Email