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Torah, Politics and Israel
November 24, 2012
© Rabbi Jack Moline (except linked material)

Thank you for your interest in my sermons. I hope you enjoy reading them. 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

Here is the story I asked everyone to read before I spoke:

You know that it is pretty infrequent that I actually deliver a sermon on a regular old Shabbat. And yet, here I am, on a weekend that ought to bring some down-time, having prepared these remarks and standing in front of you pronouncing instead of discussing. I want to talk about Torah and politics and Israel, in that order, and I suspect each of you is feeling a small tightening somewhere in your body at least one of those topics.

In this week's Torah portion, we read about Jacob's integration into the family of his intended wife. Offered the promise of marrying his beloved Rachel, he agrees to work for seven years for her father Laban in order to be accepted into the family with which he has decided to cast his lot. Jacob becomes not much more than an indentured servant.

After seven years, having paid off his promissory note, he comes to the wedding ceremony to marry his heavily-veiled bride. Only after the ceremony is complete does he understand that he has been tricked, duped, deceived. The bride is not Rachel but her sister Leah, for whom Jacob does not possess a burning love. Laban comes up with a pretty poor excuse for the deception, but promises Jacob that he can also marry Rachel seven days later, but only if he agrees to seven more years of servitude.

Jacob does that and more. But having kept his word, he is still held back by the family of Laban. So he comes up with a strategy. He asks for his own flock - not from the best of the sheep, those that are pure white or pure black, but from the sheep with mottled color. Those sheep are worth considerably less but what Jacob lacks in profit he makes up in volume, and by his own clever plans he manages to breed a larger flock than his brothers-in-law. And they aren't happy. After all, he is an interloper, and they make plans to get back from Jacob what they have convinced themselves he came by dishonestly.

Now I hope you can forgive me for slanting this story a little bit. I don't think I said anything that is inconsistent with the story, but the language is, I know, a little provocative. By the time we get to the section of the portion we read this morning, Jacob is on the run with his household and Laban is in pursuit. This is only one of the possible resolutions of the story, but it is the way the story is resolved in Torah.

It is hard for us to decide who Jacob is at this moment. He began his life as the homebody, but then negotiated his starving brother out of a birthright for a bowl of soup, making him something of a cruel opportunist. He deceived his father into giving him Esau's blessing by, essentially, placing a stumbling block before the blind. He ran away, making him something of a coward. He pledged his troth, making him a loving suitor. He accepted Laban's deception, making him a sort of spineless victim. He masterminded the sheep situation, making him something of a conniver. And he took off in the middle of the night with his father-in-law's daughters and grandchildren, making him either a cruel opportunist, a coward, a loving husband and father or a conniver. Or maybe he is all of the above. That is to say, Jacob is, like all of us, many people simultaneously.

The one thing we can say for certain is that all of the things that Jacob becomes stick with him. He cannot go back to who he was before the lentil soup affair. He cannot turn back the clock to those innocent days of wooing Rachel. And once he takes off with his family, he cannot go back to Laban. Even if he wanted to do any of those things, there was no going back.

At what moment was there a tipping point? Which words out of his mouth severed his relationship with Esau? Which beat of his heart made him possessed by love of Rachel? How many mottled sheep exactly made him the envy of his brothers-in-law? We don't know. But we do know that when the balance was tipped, there was no going back.

Now that our brutal presidential campaign is over, it is worth looking at the tipping point as well. You have all seen the analyses of the voting patterns - never mind the Jews just yet, I mean general voting patterns. The Republicans conducted a campaign that was aimed at rekindling the America that was defined by values of a generation ago. For the most part, it was not about race or religion, but it was nonetheless an appeal to the values and practices of an America that was defined by white Christian men.

The campaign team was shocked to discover on election night that America is not like that anymore. Minorities - and you can include Jews if you like - now constitute the collective majority in this country. The difficulty that some Republican candidates had in acknowledging the concerns of women, people with immigrant backgrounds, and an increasingly religiously disaffected youth with a willingness to embrace people of different cultures and sexual orientations made it difficult for the party as a whole to take advantage of the markers that historically have meant the defeat of an incumbent: a bad economy, unpopular foreign entanglements and a general feeling of malaise.

Like Jacob and his sheep, what was once considered marginal and mottled had reached the tipping point and become definitive. You don't need me to expand on this subject. People much brighter than I am have done a better job explaining it. My real concern this morning is Jews, and particularly Jews supporting the State of Israel. And I think we have some lessons to take from Jacob and from the last election in thinking about the support we need for Israel from ourselves and from our fellow Americans.

A poll was taken a few days into the latest armed exchanges with Gaza about support for Israel. Much was made of the fact that while an overwhelming majority of Republicans and independents supported Israel's actions, only 41% of the Democrats polled were supportive. 26% were undecided, and 23% disapproved. Those people who are still conducting the presidential campaign are declaring the demise of Democratic support for Israel. And they express disbelief that two-thirds of the Jews in this country voted to reelect the President - about the same number as have historically voted Democratic since 1940.

Meanwhile, a separate poll conducted last spring seems to show that Israel is a determining factor for only 4% of Jews likely to vote. They are far more likely to support candidates who have progressive social justice agendas. Putting the two together, you might think that the battle for the hearts of American Jews by Israel has been lost.

It is worthwhile noting that the lamenting is being done by people closer to my age than my children's age. We and our elders are the ones who were raised on Leon Uris' Exodus, book and movie, the stage musical "Milk and Honey," little David in 1967 defeating the Arab Goliath. We hold an image of Israel as a struggling little country that serves as a haven for oppressed Jews. Theologically translated, it is the Israel that is supported by Christian Zionists, who read their Bibles in a particular way that we find politically appealing but religiously horrifying. It does not make us ungrateful for their support, nor should it, but I hasten to point out that they also represent the Republican base in American politics.

We have a sense of Israeli exceptionalism. We consider the philosophical and political concerns of American Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians, Muslims, young progressives and Jews under 45 to be irrelevant when we think about Israel, even if we support them in other circumstances. They lift up inclusiveness, peace-seeking, social justice and civil rights as their issues, and we hold Israel as a value rather than a set of issues. We who hold Israel as a value are willing to dig deeper into the facts and find that Israeli foreign aid does more for developing nations than the Arab world collectively, that outside of religious practice women, gays and lesbians, people with disabilities, immigrants and minorities fare better than in most of the rest of the world, including the United States, that civic engagement in Israel has produced a society in which the transparency of policy debates puts everyone else to shame. We note the irony that freedom of the press in Israel allows CNN to broadcast about Israeli "atrocities" in Gaza, but the same reporters attempting to report on the atrocities of Hamas would be silenced, and I don't mean by cutting off their broadcasts.

But the new majority in this country sees an Israeli government that has cultivated the Republican ethos that they have resisted. Israel has sent the best ambassador it every appointed to the United States - a man who knows the way American Jews think and the truth about Israel's blessings and challenges. For goodness sake, he hosts an annual iftar during Ramadan in his home. But he is asked to defend an increasingly unpopular and inaccurate image of a society that is one missile away from obliteration. The rest of America sees Israel as a formidable military power equal to or greater than any challenge it meets. And they see Israel's government as making deals with Avigdor Lieberman, who is woefully misunderstood as anti-Arab and with the Chief Rabbinate, with its high-profile prejudices. They see evidence that the legal system is tilted away from justice for Palestinians and that a diminishing plurality wants to control territory that has been successfully defined as occupied.

Republicans - the wise ones - have learned a lesson and are reexamining their approach to the American public. I suspect we will hear more about fiscal responsibility and effective government and less about illegals and sexuality. And we Jews who love Israel would do well to stop huffing and puffing about radical Islam and media bias and European anti-semitism. We ought to be building relationships and coalitions with American Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians, Muslims, young progressives and Jews under 45. I might add parenthetically that there is one Israel advocacy organization that is ahead of the curve on this one - AIPAC - and another that has a smaller but exquisitely effective approach - Project Interchange of AJC.

That doesn't mean we should neglect the Republican base - but that base is going to change as well. We will not persuade our friends to stick with us by citing statistics of how many rockets fell or who won't come to the negotiating table or how long Jerusalem has been the capital of the Jewish people. However true they are, they are mostly self-gratifying. We do not have to abandon the truth to recognize that yelling it louder and louder is not the most effective way to persuade people.

We have to persuade people who believe themselves to be good that we are just like them, and that there is evil we must all resist together.

So we have to become expert is presenting Israel as the many nations it is, with the love and learning we use to discuss our father Jacob and his variegated life. What happened in the past is a part of today, but it is not the only part of today.

And that's why I asked you to read Etgar Keret's wonderful memoir of last week, "Pastrami." The world has forgotten why it is that Israel was so determined to become strong and independent of others in taking care of itself. Its success in that goal has led people to neglect the humanity and vulnerability of Israelis who want to live the kinds of lives we take for granted in this part of the world. They want to take a road trip for a holiday. They want to play games on grandpa's front lawn. They want to shelter their seven-year-olds from danger falling from the sky and from monsters lurking under the bed.

Just like Jacob wanted love and family and freedom - all those other things were not the values that defined him - we who are the children of Jacob, the children of Israel must connect with those for whom love and family and freedom are sustained no matter what tipping points may have been reached. It may be hard for us to decide what Israel is at the moment, but what it is at its core - the realization of our millennial dreams of being a free people in our own land and a light of nations - must not be lost in the pursuit of small victories on the political battleground.

Thanks to my colleague Rabbi Avram Kogen for great assistance in framing my thoughts.

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