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! My apologies for any typos. Jack Moline
Rosh HaShanah 2, 5774/2013 - Five Ages of Israel - ©Rabbi Jack Moline
One Monday during the summer I went to Rindge, New Hampshire to a conference taking place at Franklin Pierce University for aspiring rabbis in the Jewish Renewal program. It's unfamiliar territory for me - all of it. The airport in Manchester, NH, has a life-size statue of a moose in it. Rindge would be unremarkable were it not for Franklin Pierce University. And Franklin Pierce, who was himself an unremarkable President of the United States, was the name chosen for one of the first entrepreneurial colleges in the country fifty years ago. If it succeeded, Franklin Pierce's name would be redeemed, and if it failed, people would say, "What do you expect from a college named after the worst US President in history?"
The ALEPH ordination program was also unfamiliar territory. I was there to speak to these rabbinical students, most of whom were closer to my age than to my students at JTS, about engaging in the public conversations about Israel inside and outside the Jewish community. It is safe to say that few of them were members of the Zionist Organization of America and that most of them will be at the J-Street Conference next month. When I received the invitation, it was to explain to them that being a responsible public rabbi means not confusing your personal opinion with the mandates of Jewish tradition. For many it was a new concept, but then I would make the same statement about some of my JTS students.
I thought the best part of this day trip for me would be sitting on the panel with Elliot Ginsburg, a professor at the University of Michigan and a guru of the Renewal community. The last time I saw Elliot was in 1970 when we were in USY together. It was a wonderful reunion.
But the best part turned out to be another panelist who spoke to us, via Skype, from his living room in Israel. His name is Zohar Raviv, and any number of you know him from the time he spent here in the area. He taught Melton classes and held forth in a number of different venues. He is the kind of person who talks and makes your head explode with ideas. And that day in June was just like that for me. I wrote to him afterward to let him know I was going to shamelessly steal his thoughts and use them to talk about Israel today. And so I am.
Zohar - I'll presume to be familiar - suggests that there are five different Israels in our tradition, and I will spend some time on each one. The first is Israel imagined. The second is covenantal Israel. The third is Israel remembered. The fourth is Israel lived. And the fifth is Israel envisioned.
Israel imagined is the land that is described to the people in the wilderness. It is the land of milk and honey, a place of primal and pristine beauty awaiting the arrival of its people. It is a place in which this rag-tag cohort of slaves will find paradise, a free people in its own land. There will be no alien influences. Life will be lived in accordance with the Divine Will. The land will gush forth its bounty, so much so that even in the sabbatical and jubilee years the produce that grows wild will sustain the entire population. There will be no barren woman and no barren man, and cattle will all reproduce prolifically.
That's not to say there are no challenges - hostile tribes, wild beasts and even the inevitable poverty and crime. But they will be overcome.
Israel imagined is indicated by some version of the words that introduced the Torah portion just a couple of weeks ago - ki tavo. "When you come" into the land. When you enter, when you arrive. These are the ideas with which the freed slaves and their next generation were nurtured.
And they are summed up in another section we read just a few weeks ago. Mostly, we are familiar with the verses in the midst of chapter 11 of Deuteronomy that instruct us to wear t'filin. But the verses on either side (10-12 and 22-25) describe a halcyon vision of what life will be like when the people arrive, if they are loyal to God.
The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden. But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the LORD your God cares for; the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end.
So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today-to love the LORD your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul- then I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and olive oil. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied....
If you carefully observe all these commands I am giving you to follow-to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him and to hold fast to him- then the LORD will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations larger and stronger than you. Every place where you set your foot will be yours: Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the Euphrates River to the Mediterranean Sea. No one will be able to stand against you. The LORD your God, as he promised you, will put the terror and fear of you on the whole land, wherever you go.
L'havdil, to make a thousand distinctions, think of the idealized fantasy land that was captured in the old folk song that described a hobo's paradise, the one that Burl Ives immortalized. The chorus of "Big Rock Candy Mountain" went like this:
Oh the buzzin' of the bees
In the cigarette trees
Near the soda water fountain
At the lemonade springs
Where the bluebird sings
On the big rock candy mountain
Of course I put infinitely more stock in the divine words of Torah than in the indulgent dreams of an itinerant. But it is not hard to understand that a homeless people, leaving behind oppression and denigration, would be open to the message of an idealized land. But they recognized it as an ideal, I would contend, and were prepared to face a reality that was to lead incrementally to a better society.
Perhaps this is the reason Moses did not enter the land. Moses always found disappointment in circumstances that did not measure up to a best-case scenario - defending his people against the taskmaster, presenting himself to the slaves, demanding freedom from Pharaoh, receiving the commandments atop Sinai, promising the people sustenance and water. When God recognized Moses' uncompromising idealism, God saved Moses the devastating disappointing of discovering that the Promised Land was not the Magic Kingdom, but rather the raw material with which to build a society saturated in the humanity and devotion of the people whose freedom Moses had secured.
But when the people entered the land, it began the next phase of Israel's history: the covenantal Israel. Our people set about making a place that was the realization of the imaginings in the Torah. Individual and collective behavior responded to the mandates of the ethical teachings of the Torah. All of the experiences that found their way into the case law of the Mishnah occurred inside or connected to the land. To be sure there were different kinds of governments - judges and kings, occupiers and revolutionaries - but living in the land itself played a role in the construction of a living covenant.
And I say a living covenant to distinguish it from the covenant engraved on stone or inscribed on parchment. Living in the land forced people to come to an understanding of what it means to leave the corners of the fields unharvested. As a general instruction, it is lovely, but what exactly constitutes a corner? Is it a triangle or a square? Does it have a side that is a handbreadth, an arm's length or a stride? Does the size of the field determine the size of the corner?
Another example is kashrut. Back in the desert, when all there was to eat was manna and the occasional quail, not boiling a kid in its mother's milk was sufficient instruction to regulate the vegan diet imposed on our ancestors. But clean and unclean animals, kosher slaughter and separation of dairy and meat were realities to be put into practice over the hundreds of years of our life in the land. Most people believe that Torah study was the source of our commitment to education, but I believe that it was kashrut. What started as simple instructions about what to eat and how to eat it evolved to the point that you need a graduate school education to make a kosher hamburger.
Yet it is more than what the people did. The land itself becomes a guarantor of the covenant. If we are to observe Shabbat each week, the land itself must also observe Shabbat. Take these verses from Vayikra, Leviticus, chapter 25:
Speak to the Israelites and say to them: 'When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the LORD. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the LORD. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. Do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the grapes of your untended vines. The land is to have a year of rest.
Or this. I don't need to tell you that each Jewish boy must be circumcised. Especially if you are a Jewish boy, I don't need to tell you that. An uncircumcised man is an areil, and that word literally means "untrimmed." If we are to trim the foreskin of each son, in Hebrew orlah, then the land itself demands that each tree, each new life it puts forward, must be trimmed as well. Also from Leviticus (19:23):
When you enter the land and plant any kind of fruit tree, regard its fruit as uncircumcised. For three years you are to consider it untrimmed; it may not be eaten.
But my guess is that no mitzvah speaks more to your sense of the covenant than tzedakah, righteous giving. We all know that we are mandated to help those who are in need. Some of us build out entire Jewish sense of self around generosity. But the instructions in the Torah mandated that the land itself played a role in the fulfillment of that aspect of the covenant. From Deuteronomy 15:
At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the LORD's time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. For the LORD your God will bless you as he has promised, and you will lend to many nations but will borrow from none. You will rule over many nations but none will rule over you.
If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: "The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near," so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the LORD against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.
This period of covenantal Israel lasted through the destruction of the First Temple and ended with the exile from the land after the destruction of the Second Temple. And for 2000 years, we lived in the period of Israel remembered. During that period of time, Israel became both less and more than it ever was. As empires and merchants used the land as a crossroads between Europe and Africa, as Christians and Muslims battled over who controlled sites designated as holy or defensively necessary, Jewish presence in the land faded to a shadow of its glorious self. Though never absent from the land, Jews were exponentially more numerous in the four directions of the Diaspora, and they took with them inherited memories, a new oral tradition about the land and its past glories.
If Jewish life in the land diminished, the role of the land in our redemptive history grew. The mythical and mystical aspects of the land captured the imagination of every generation of interpreters of the Jewish experience. The Land of Israel was in every opportunity for prayer. It was part of the hierarchy of charitable giving, even in the shtetlakh and communities of itinerant Jews who scraped by on subsistence income. It was a place of unimaginable beauty - nine of the ten measures of glory allotted to the world, even if that beauty was hidden and exhorted to rise up, like the mystics in Tz'fat called to Jerusalem to hurry Shabbat. Tunnels beneath the ground connected every corner of the earth to Israel, ready to open when the Messiah arrived so as to whisk every Jew back to the restored Promised Land. (See, Elon Musk isn't such an innovator - he got that tube idea from Kabbalah.)
The land of Israel became, as Raviv calls it, a redemptive necessity. Until we were gathered in peace from the four corners of the earth and led upright to our land we could not be redeemed. Mythically and mystically, Israel represented home, the place we were without during our 2000 years of living by the sufferance of feudal lords, ideological monarchs and host nations. I hope it is clear how these dreams informed Zionism, and what kinds of tensions were created as a result. So romanticized had the land become, so identified with the will of God, that the return of the Jews to the land they yearned for was, for some, an affront rather than a victory.
In 1948 this long period of Israel remembered came to an abrupt end. And since that time, it is Israel lived. It may surprise you, but I want to say the least about this time in which we live. It has been the subject of essays and books and sermons. It forms the foundation of a raft of organizations - those attached to the government of Israel, those designed to advocate among Jews or among Americans or among American Jews or among the many nations of the world, and, of course, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC. If you want to see what "Israel lived" looks like and you can't just pop over there, consider joining me at the AIPAC Policy Conference March 2-4.
I will say this much: Israel lived is a place of profound challenges. Unlike covenantal Israel, in which the people's inclinations were the only opposition to the rule of Torah, the State of Israel, Israel lived, is a place of competing philosophies. Every oleh and olah, that is, each person who immigrated to Israel, brought a set of presumptions about society and its governance. The Jewish tradition is not an inherently democratic tradition, and democracy is unforgiving to the parochial concerns of maintaining a society that is dominantly Jewish.
And 65 years of Israel lived is a drop in the bucket against the romanticized and mythologized Israel remembered. At least 20% of Israel's population lives in that romanticized past, building the life they pretend the first generation to enter the land lived when they crossed the Jordan in their shtreimels, shouting instructions in Yiddish and refusing any meat that wasn't glatt. Laugh if you want, but 80% of American Jews live in that romanticized past, relating to Israel as the shelter for poor and oppressed brethren, demanding that it be a paragon of tikkun olam, insisting that they be allowed to pray wherever and however they choose, holding tight to any plot of land mentioned in the Bible, or existing as a sort of Jewish Disneyland when they come for a visit.
The biggest challenge for Israel lived is how to move beyond the past. And since every day is tomorrow's past, for Israel, for Israelis, no less than for any of us, that's a constant challenge.
Zohar Raviv's fifth Israel is Israel envisioned. And while I have stolen his ideas liberally, here I want to steal some of his language directly. He said: One day in the future, all of us will become part of the Jewish past. Living as we do in this world, all of us have to decide what legacy our future will leave to the past.
And therein is the challenge for all of us. The many different vocabularies that articulate a vision for tomorrow have critical ideas to contribute. It behooves us each to master as many of them as we can. It is true that some of those vocabularies are still of Israel imagined - that is, not grounded in reality, but in idealism. It is just as true that some of those vocabularies are saturated with cynicism - that is, they affirm certain negative and intractable suppositions about human nature, Christians and Muslims, anti-semitism, Gentile inferiority and Jewish superiority. They cannot be ignored. The Jewish vocabulary is sometimes a religious vocabulary, and the religious vocabulary itself has shattered into a hundred variations. The Jewish vocabulary is sometimes a nationalist vocabulary, familiar to us as Americans but peculiar to us as Jews. The Jewish vocabulary is sometimes a political vocabulary, not just of our own bickering Republicans and Democrats, but of socialists, communists, revisionists, supremacists, radicals, reactionaries, and, let us not forgets, even partners in this endeavor who are Israelis but not Jews.
Once again words from Zohar Raviv: the unity of Jews is not the same as the uniformity of Jews.
And so the plea I offer today from this pulpit is one grounded deeply in the texts that record all four of the Israels we have experienced in our history.
From Israel imagined comes Leviticus 19:17: You shall not hate your brother [or sister] in your heart; reprove your people to avoid sin. The Torah itself admonishes us against the rage and fury that builds inside when we are confronted with someone we think should know better than to say and do the wrong things. We prejudge them by the labels we attach to them - left-wing and right-wing, Z-street or J-street, hawk or dove, hareidi or secular, Holocaust-obsessed or Holocaust-ignoring. Allowing that hatred to fester until it cannot help but explode when a perspective contrary to your own is expressed violates the idealism of Israel imagined. Refusing to offer reproof that is grounded in love and concern, and refusing to hear reproof that is grounded in love and concern is likewise a rejection of the values of Israel imagined.
From covenantal Israel comes the most overused and underused teaching in all the Talmud. Eilu v'eilu divrei elohim chayyim; both sides of an argument are the words of the living God. The description applies to the students of Hillel and the students of Shammai who were at loggerheads about almost everything, from the trivial to the ultimate. Make no mistake - each side believed the other to be completely wrong in their conclusions about right and proper conduct. But they ate in each other's homes, and their children married each other, and they learned each other's positions because of the presumption of their genuine concern.
From Israel remembered comes the text of Tikvateinu, the nine-stanza poem composed at the very end of this period of time, in 1877. If you read it, you see the origins of Israel's national anthem, about which I spoke last year. Naftali Herz Inber, the poet who composed Tikvateinu, created a compendium of yearning for the land. He understood the pure tears shed in exile to reflect the waters of the Jordan, the Temple ruins to await rebuilding, the return to the land to prove God's compassion and forgiveness. Israel the land was depicted as a place where healing was not only possible but promised. Its mystical and mythical qualities would be fulfilled in the realization of our hopes, not by some inexplicable magic.
And from Israel lived - from Israel lived - come the words of its current President, Shimon Peres. He said, "The Jews' greatest contribution to history is dissatisfaction! We're a nation born to be discontented. Whatever exists we believe can be changed for the better." You can see Peres's wisdom in everything Israel undertakes - there is no more dissatisfied people in the world than Israelis and the Jews who support them. We live a miracle, we speak a resurrected language, we grow crops in the wilderness, we invent things that cannot possibly exist, and, compared to the neighborhood, we have created a paradise. And yet we are dissatisfied about our record toward those who are different than we are. We are discontented that the quality of life so many enjoy is not universal. We are frustrated that our children's lives are interrupted by military service, and more frustrated that the lives of some of our children are not. We cannot seem to get right the balance between freedom of conscience and devotion to communal values.
That's what our role is in creating Israel envisioned. If you can't muster love, at least do not hate your fellow Jews. Honor our differences. Remember our legacy. Insist that we can be better than we are.
Israel is no more fragile than any other state. Perhaps that reassures you or perhaps it is cause for alarm. But Israel, in spite of what our enemies say about us, is more pliable than any other state. Our children's children will look back at this time and learn from the future we envisioned. In every generation the land of Israel, in the end, became what we aspired to be.
Dream well, my friends. Dream big. And may those dreams come true.
And thank you, Zohar.