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Rosh HaShanah 2, 5771/2010
© 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

Rosh HaShanah 2, 5771/2010 * * * Israel * * * ©Rabbi Jack Moline

You all know the joke about the guy who is walking down the beach and he kicks something metal in the sand, He bends down to inspect it and realizes that there is a middle-eastern looking lamp on at his feet. As he brushes it off, there is puff of smoke and a genie appears.

"Your wish is my command," intones the genie.

"Don't I get three wishes?" says the guy.

"Don't get greedy," says the genie. "And don't be selfish either."

"All right," says the guy. "Listen, I have been a Cubs fan all my life. My wish is that they win the World Series this year against New York."

"Are you kidding?" says the genie. "Have you seen the Cubs line-up? They traded away their power and their fielding except for Soriano, and he is as consistent as John McCain in a senate primary. Anyone on their pitching staff named Carlos is as dependable as a mid-term election. The rest of the lineup has less experience than Barak Obama as a military strategist. I'm only a genie. Try a different wish."

"Okay," says the guy. "The Israelis and the Palestinians are back at the negotiating table. How about if you make it so they actually succeed in reaching a permanent and satisfying agreement for both of them."

The genie thinks for a minute and says, "Do you want the Cubs to win in seven games or to sweep the Yankees?"

It seems like every few years there is another peace conference and shortly thereafter things get worse for a while for Israel. Is there any reason to be more optimistic this time? In a sense there is not, and in another sense there is. But quite honestly, I don't know which sense is true and neither does anyone else. I can only share what Ambassador Oren suggested makes this try different than the rest: for the first time, as evidenced by the presence of the King of Jordan and the President of Egypt at the opening ceremonies, Arab nations have concluded that they have a greater enemy than Israel – and it's name is Iran.

It is a funny thing, making peace. We have a tendency to speak as if a series of high-level conversations can undo a history of comprehensive antagonism, or, alternately, as if the antagonism exists only among some small segment of government or rebel malcontents, while the people in the streets want nothing more than to live in blissful coexistence.

But my friend Danny Gordis writes of his awakening to a different kind of truth:

In the suburban, well-educated, politically and Jewishly liberal America in which I grew up, we didn't use the label "enemy." "Enemy" was a dirty word, because it implied the immutability of conflict. Yes, there were people who fought us, but only because we hadn't yet arrived at a fair resolution of our conflict. We needed to understand them, so we could then resolve the conflicts that divided us.

I still recall being jarred, when we made aliya, by the matter-of-factness with which Israelis use the word "enemy." But it wasn't a judgment or an accusation. It was simply a fact: there are people out to destroy our state who seek to kill us and our children. And as the intifada later amply demonstrated, they did not yearn for our understanding or our friendship. They wanted our demise.

When we think about the future of Israel – indeed, when we think about the future of the United States – we would do well to remember that there is some percentage of human beings who want nothing more than our demise. And that's what makes even the concept of peace talks so difficult to embrace.

Some of you are hoping and some of you are fearing that I am about to take a different position than you have come to expect from me. Relax, all of you. My politics remain where they have consistently been, and I don't expect that to change. This isn't a press conference and, in spite of my occasional bravado, I am still just a simple country rabbi.

Instead, I want to call your attention to two prophetic readings that have been heard in this room over the last two weeks. One was chanted very ably not a week ago by the newest adult in our congregation, Patrick Devine. And the other was chanted just as expertly by Arielle Green just a few minutes ago. What they have in common is a vision of Jerusalem and, by extension, of the Land of Israel. The former is Isaiah's vision and the latter is Jeremiah's. And it is worth understanding just a little bit from each as we struggle with the question of how Israel should resolve the dilemma of perpetual enemies close at hand.

"For the sake of Zion I will not be silent; for the sake of Jerusalem I will not be still." So begins Chapter 62 of the Book of Isaiah, a proclamation of the city rebuilt. Last Shabbat's haftarah is the seventh reading of consolation after Tisha B'Av, and it is the crescendo of the series of visions of the city restored. Risen from the rubble, a strong and vital center of Jewish life has emerged as a lesson to the other nations of the world.

Such a delight is this set of images that many of them find their way into the wedding ceremony and celebration – yassis alayikh elohayikh, "Your God will rejoice in you" begins the essential wedding song; sos assis baH', tageil nafshi b'eilohai, "I deeply rejoice in Adonai, my whole being exults in my God" anticipates one of the seven wedding blessings.

But the haftarah is not one that is a mere celebration of restoration and renewal. Al chomotayikh, ir david, hifkad'ti shomrim kol hayom v'kol halaila. You have sung those words in a popular Israeli song from the 1970s: "Upon your walls, oh City of David, I have posted watchman all day and all night." The haftarah is filled with militant images of Jewish domination. "Nations shall see your victory," says Isaiah, "and every king your majesty." "God has sworn, by right hand and mighty arm, that nevermore will I give your new grain to your enemies for food, nevermore will strangers drink the new wine for which you labored."

Isaiah asks the triumphant God, marching from the enemy territories of Edom and Botzrah, "Why are your garments so red?" "I stomped them down in anger," is the response. "I trampled them in my rage. Their life-blood splattered my garments and all my clothing was stained."

The voice of Isaiah – a very different Isaiah than we will hear on Yom Kippur, by the way – recalls the military triumph that secured Jerusalem, the strikes in surrounding territories, and the standing army that keeps watch on her walls so that we may rejoice in Jerusalem.

Let me tell you, you don't have to like that image. You can try to explain it away, but you would be false in the attempt. There is a sense from within our tradition that the way to secure the formerly besieged city is to fortify it, and to strike at enemies well outside its boundaries. The joy and gladness within for the Jews will come at a price for the enemies of the Jews without, and God will not only approve, but will lead the charge. The celebratory wine we drink will remind us of the blood that was spilled – enemies stomped and trampled like grapes for wine.

That is one image of peace for Jerusalem.

It is worth comparing and contrasting the words of Jeremiah, which are never read more than eight days later. Jeremiah also speaks of new grain and new wine, of a city rejoicing in the homecoming of its exiles. Jeremiah also speaks of God coming from a distant land, leading the people who are strong and well, as well as the people who are blind and lame. They will weep with joy as they return to a long through open borders and cleared roads.

The haftarah opens with words that are also familiar to you if you have sung Israeli songs: ko amar H' matza chen bamidbar; am s'ridei charev halokh l'hargio yisrael, "thus said God: the people who survived the sword found favor in the wilderness, Israel marching homeward." Jeremiah does not deny the attacks of Amalek or the wars with the surrounding Canaanites, but the conflict is over. They find favor in God's eyes, and God will lead them home to a waiting land of plenty.

This time, it is not the Lord robed in crimson garments, dyed red by the blood of enemies. This time, God proclaims, "they came to me in tears, but in compassion will I lead them to the flowing streams of water."

The watchmen in the north call out to the people of the land, "Come, let us go up to Zion!" And as they approach Jerusalem, a voice of weeping is heard: Rachel, the matriarch who died along the way and who was buried at the side of the road, weeps for her lost children in exile. "Restrain your voice from weeping," God reassures her, for your children are returning and there is hope for your future.

Peacefully, fearlessly, with sword and suffering behind them, the people inhabit the land in loving relationship with their paternal protector and maternal nurturer, the Holy One of blessed name.

Let me tell you, you don't have to like that image. You can try to explain it away, but you would be false in the attempt. There is a sense from within our tradition that our return to the Promised Land would be complete when peace guides the planet and love steers the stars. Every person will sit under vine and fig tree and none will be made afraid. It is not that there never was and never would be conflict, nor that enemies would disappear, but the militant watchman would give way to the friendly neighbor.

That is one image of peace for Jerusalem.

We have partisans in our Jewish community of both images. Here in the United States we have politicians and pundits, bloggers and self-proclaimed experts who are persuaded that Isaiah's image is correct. Without a set of continually rattling sabers, there can never be peace, and therefore the talks are worthwhile only if they are, in the end, irrelevant. The other side can have peace on our terms when they are ready to accept our terms. And if not, they are prepared to stain the clothing of the stompers and tramplers of an indefinite number of future generations.

And we also have lobbyists and lawyers, analysts and investors who are persuaded that Jeremiah's image is correct. As long as walls stand around us with watchmen guarding them, as long as roads are blocked and reminders of our way of life antagonize our neighbors, Rachel will continue to weep. We can have peace when we are prepared to acknowledge the terms of peace that our oppressed neighbors desire. And if not, then we will continue to hold up a weeping Rachel and blame the saber-rattlers for her tears.

As I said, we have partisans of both images here in the United States. I may have overstated their positions a little bit, especially in some individual cases, but the fact is that those partisans do what every group of partisans do in the country – they organize into advocacy organizations and attempt to pressure both the US government and the Israeli government into taking hold of their image.

If you are a member of the Zionist Organization of America, the ZOA, you are going to object to my identifying you with the former position, and that's your right in this free country of ours. And if you are a member of J-Street, you are going to object to my identifying you with the latter position, and that is your right also in this free country of ours. As a matter of philosophy, I feel a much stronger identification with one set of aspirations than with the other. But I don't count myself as a member of either group.

And the reason for that is that these two prophetic visions, though they have been carried forward for thousands of years by our sacred tradition, are neither individually useful nor mutually exclusive in this modern world of ours. By setting them up as competing visions, these organizations contribute to the notion that Israel is an issue for us as Jews and Americans. Israel is not and should not be an issue. Israel is and should be a value.

And what is more, both organizations and others like them have a fatal flaw: however well-informed they think they are and however well-connected they think they are, in the end they betray the value that we as a synagogue and a religious community articulate when we pray for the welfare of the State of Israel, asking God to spread the shelter of peace over the land and its people:

Ushlach orkha v'amit'kha l'rosheha, sareha v'yoatzeha, v'takneim b'eitza tovah milfanekha

"Send Your light and Your truth to its leader, its cabinet and its advisors, and instruction them with your good advice."

In the end, that's the only real way for peace to be made – for the leadership of the State of Israel itself to make peace on the terms it chooses for its own people. For all of the bizarre politics in Israel and strangest of bedfellows that have formed coalition governments, there has been a consistent and persistent effort on the part of the Prime Ministers and the governments they have led to seek peace and pursue it.

Israel's heritage stretches back to the time of Isaiah and Jeremiah – and even beyond. Yet, much as I love the Bible, much as I turn to it for knowledge, inspiration and truth, even I recognize that we do not live in a Biblical world. We don't live in the time of the Second Temple. Hey – in spite of what some superficial paranoids insist on repeating, we don't even live in 1939.

The current Prime Minister has made at least two formal attempts at peace. The quintessential warrior for Israel gave his life in the pursuit of peace, and another such soldier lies in a coma that overcame him half way through his own efforts. The President and the Defense Minister of this government made their efforts when they sat as heads of government, and even the Prime Minister past who is awaiting trial on personal corruption charges nonetheless made overtures for peace. They have all endured uprisings, rebellions, barrages of rockets, sucker punches, kidnappings, suicide-homicide bombers and the endless economic, political and academic harassment by enemies funded by their enemies.

For all of the warnings by the Isaiah camp and all of the moaning by the Jeremiah camp, the goal of peace with the Palestinians who occupy the land has been pursued with diligence, even when it was not so obvious anyone was pursuing back, by the left wing and the right wing of Israeli politics.

How are we to show our support for those efforts? How are we to stand with Israel as its citizens and its duly elected government move toward peace and security?

There are a hundred ways to contribute to the continuation of the Israeli endeavor. Your support of those organizations within Israel that teach its young people, care for its needy, ensure civil rights and especially religious freedom, protect its environment are all a good way. You know that we have our own congregational commitment to the Jewish National Fund's Arava Institute, which is training Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians how to cooperatively care for the environment.

Your investment in Israel is the best vote of no confidence in the spurious BDS movement, the efforts of Israel's genuine enemies to promote boycott, divestment and sanctions against the Jewish state. Buy Israel Bonds, buy Israeli products and invest in Israeli companies. If you feel like divesting from something, try persuading your pension fund to refuse to do business with Iran or any company supporting their threat to the region.

I wouldn't dare tell you not to belong to an advocacy organization. If you want to belong to ZOA or J-Street, to Americans for Peace Now or the David Project, to Stand With Us or Brit Tzedek, then by all means do so. They serve a valuable purpose in the discourse in this country about our values and priorities. But listen to me – Israel is the oldest democracy in the world formed after World War II, since the founding of the United Nations. And it is the only one of those democracies whose democratic form of government has not been interrupted since its founding. In the end, whether you believe in American exceptionalism or globalization, isn't that exactly what you want to support – a functioning democracy that has not suspended human and civil rights, representative government or social services through wars, economic disasters, political upheavals and the inevitable scandal or two?

Whatever else you support politically, you should support the one organization dedicated to the policies that the government of Israel is itself committed to – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC. All these other groups who claim to be David to the Goliath of AIPAC simply have it wrong.

It is not that AIPAC is perfect, and it is not that AIPAC always gets things right. But there are two things that AIPAC indeed always gets right that are the essential things a lover of Israel who does not live in Israel needs to learn: first, the duly elected government of Israel gets to set its own policy without being dictated to by anyone else, including the United States and including the Jews of the United States.

And the other thing for us to learn from AIPAC is that there are enemies in this world. Those enemies are not American politicians – AIPAC activists like to say that there are no enemies, only friends we have yet to make. Those enemies are not all people who share a particular religious or ethnic label. But there are enemies in the world and it doesn't make sense to pretend there aren't or to waste our energy flinging names at people with whom we simply disagree. It is toward those enemies that our efforts must be directed.

That is to say, Isaiah and Jeremiah both would feel right at home in this context, as well they should. No matter what my preference is or yours, just as they are both in the Bible, the values they each represent in these brief readings are both in the modern context of 21st century political realities.

My prayers are with the peacemakers. The decisions they have to make are more than difficult – they have existential implications for all the parties involved. The success of these talks would have worth in and of itself, but would also serve to further isolate the enemies of Israel and of decent human beings around the world. I likely would not have voted for PM Netanyahu were I an Israeli citizen, but in spite of my disagreements with his politics, he is the Prime Minister that I support, especially in these efforts. He knows what his responsibilities are in both failure AND success.

But honestly, if these talks again reach an unsuccessful end point, Israel will remain my central concern, and AIPAC will remain the location of my choice to preserve that concern.

But optimistically, if these talks result in a peace that everyone can live with…it will be time to take a serious look at the 2011 Chicago Cubs.

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