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sermon: Rosh Hashanah, 5780

The Importance of Israel in the Continuation of Jewish Peoplehood by Rabbi Dan Feder

By Rabbi Dan Feder

All around the world, millions of members of the Jewish people are gathering to pray on this holy day. And, generally speaking, we’re all facing Jerusalem while we do that. It’s an interesting characteristic of who we are as a people. And when we chant the Gevurot prayer we include a line about dew or […]

All around the world, millions of members of the Jewish people are gathering to pray on this holy day. And, generally speaking, we’re all facing Jerusalem while we do that. It’s an interesting characteristic of who we are as a people. And when we chant the Gevurot prayer we include a line about dew or rain in its appropriate season. We could be praying in California or Calcutta, but we pray for dew in the summer and rain in the winter, because that is when rain and dew are needed in Israel. We could be celebrating the Passover seder in Monterey or Montreal, but we will always conclude with the words, L’shanah habaah birushalayim – next year in Jerusalem!

For two thousand years after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans and the Jewish residents were taken away in exile, our people ached, wept, and constantly prayed for their return to the land—to be a sovereign people.

And since 1948, that dream has been a reality. Israel miraculously survived the attack by its neighbors after declaring its independence, and it has survived every war since then. Just this spring, we celebrated the seventy-first year of the existence of the modern state of Israel. It’s a blessing and no less than a miracle.

And yet I have a fear. I worry that we will be the first generation to reject the notion that Israel is crucial in an existential way to our existence as a Jewish people and to reject the principles of Zionism. I was privileged to spend a week in Israel this summer, on the American Israel Education Foundation’s Rabbinic Seminar, and I came away from the trip more convinced than ever that I wanted to do everything in my power to make sure that we were not that generation.

To be Jewish has always been a little different than to be a part of other religions. Being Jewish historically has always meant three things: to be one who practices the Jewish faith, to be part of a people, and to have a connection to the land and people of Israel. This year, I want to bring our attention to one of the challenges of living in the United States in 2019. Here, we are part of a culture that values the individual, almost above all.

To be a religious person in America means, for many, to pursue religious faith, to find spiritual enlightenment and meaning because of what it does for us as individuals. And that can be positive in many ways. It is important to grow in soul and in faith, and it’s vital to reach and grow ever higher in holiness and righteousness.

But being Jewish has always meant being part of a people. To be Jewish is to bind our past, present and future to other people who share our religion, even if they practice their faith differently. And it means to have an attachment to a land that is far from us and to a people who live there that we might not even know.

How much is our story tied to the land of Israel? The story of the Jewish people begins when God tells Abraham, “Lech L’cha mei-artz’cha, umimolad’t’cha, umiveit avicha, el ha-aretz asher ar’ehcha – Go forth from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.”(1) Throughout the Torah, going to and residing in the Land of Israel is seen as good. Leaving the land is something our matriarchs and patriarchs did only because of extreme circumstances.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes of the religious significance of the land of Israel in Judaism and Jewish history. “Whatever the subplots and subsidiary themes of Tanach, its overarching narrative is the promise of and journey to the land. . . . The paradox of Jewish history is that . . . Jews have spent more time in exile than in Israel; more time longing for it than dwelling in it; more time travelling than arriving.”(2)

The centuries of our being a sovereign people in the land of Israel is relatively short. Under the leadership of Joshua, our Israelite ancestors settled the land of Israel in the thirteenth century BCE, and Kings Saul, David and Solomon ruled a unified kingdom of the twelve tribes of our people for about one hundred twenty years. For another two centuries, we were a divided kingdom, with Israel and its ten tribes to the north, and Judah and its two tribes to the south. But the northern kingdom of Israel and the ten tribes that lived there were lost to history when the Assyrians conquered the land and deported all of its inhabitants.
This marked the beginning of a pattern. Throughout history, the only time that the land of Israel was absent an Israelite or Jewish presence, was when we were taken or exiled from the land. And when the Israelites are in exile, our ancestors are forlorn and cannot fathom how they can keep their connection to God alive.

This is the poignant setting for Psalm 137, which expresses our people’s pain in being exiled by the Babylonians: “How can we sing the song of God on strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgot. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember thee; if I do not elevate Jerusalem above my chief joy.”

And for the Jewish people who live now in the Diaspora, which is the name of the lands outside of Israel, there is a complicated message—the God of Jewish people is not confined by borders. At the time that the Israelite faith began, that was an anomaly among near eastern religions of the era. The God of Israel would wander with the Children of Israel during forty years of desert existence and then settle with the Israelites in the land of Israel. And thus was established the pattern of the millennia—when Israel goes into exile, God goes into exile with the people. And when they are allowed to return, God will go with them back to the land of Israel and be with them there as well.

And this creates a dynamic that we who live in a flourishing Jewish community in America can relate to. On one hand, our God is not territorial and is not confined to space. We rightly feel that God is with us here in Burlingame, in California, and in the United States. There is no place where God is not. We believe that it is possible to live fully as Jews wherever we are.

And while this is certainly true, there is something about the existence of Israel that makes us feel more complete as a people—that is why many choose to live there, and that is why many of us feel it is a religious duty to make a pilgrimage to Israel.

Rabbi Sacks explains the dichotomy this way: “The Sages formulated the tension in two striking propositions. On the one hand, ‘Wherever the Israelites went into exile, the Divine Presence was exiled with them.’(3) On the other, ‘One who leaves Israel to live elsewhere is as if he had no God.’(4) Can one find God, serve God, experience God, outside the Holy Land? Yes and no. If the answer were only yes, there would be no incentive to return. If the answer were only no, there would be no reason to stay Jewish in exile. On this tension, the Jewish existence is built.”(5)

The land of Israel is a tangible reminder that we are called to be a holy people, that the lives we lead, the communities we create, are to illustrate that we are in a covenantal relationship with God.

And only in Israel, as a modern state, is there a community, a country no less, that was created to be an expression of Jewish values and ideals. Only there does the Jewish people have the opportunity for self-expression and determination on a societal level. The whole Torah can be seen as the answer to the question, when the Israelites finally arrive in the Land of Canaan, what will their community look like? What will be its societal construct? Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein uses the beautiful phrase, “societal beatitude,”(6) because our Torah is full of laws about the judicial system, social welfare, business practices, the rights of the employee, our duties to the environment, and public health.

To understand the importance of the modern state of Israel to the Jewish narrative, I turn to Yossi Klein Halevi, who writes, “Jews lived as a religious minority by the coercion of circumstance; they never stopped anticipating the moment when they would be transformed back into a sovereign nation. That hope was a foundation of their religious faith.”
(7)

But there is another dichotomy in modern Jewish life that makes acceptance of the modern state of Israel difficult for American Jews. Sometimes, we don’t like the politics or policies of the Israeli government, we may feel frustrated by the choices of its leaders, and we may feel sincere discomfort about the plight of the Palestinians who live in Judea and Samaria, also known as the West Bank. We may think Israel should be more like the United States, and because it’s not, many American Jews believe that they can tune out Israel, and take a pass on the notion that being Jewish requires an investment in Jewish peoplehood. But I say that’s far too easy. Our relationship with Israel is messy and it matters.

As Daniel Gordis writes, “What most American Jews have never fully understood is that Israel is not a miniature America in a bad neighborhood; it is an entirely different project, with a different purpose. . . . America would be open to everyone, privileging – at least in principle – no ethnicity, no religion, no race.”(8)

But that has never been Israel’s reason for being. It was intended to be, in the words of the 1917 Balfour Declaration “a national home for the Jewish people.”

American universalism allows us to flourish in the Diaspora as Jews, while in Israel, it is particularism that gives the country its purpose—which is to save and protect Jewish lives and to create a flourishing place for Jewish self-determination.(9)

But over the decades of Israel’s existence, it’s the norm not to emphasize the differences between the countries and to speak only of our similarities, which are many. But whereas America is known as a liberal democracy, Israel by its very nature is an ethnic democracy, and one whose politics we sometimes find troubling.(10)

For the good of both American Judaism and Jewish peoplehood, it’s time to have a higher-level conversation that acknowledges the real differences between the societies and the deep connections as well.

As Gordis concludes, what the world’s two largest Jewish communities need to do is, “to deepen our understanding of each other’s differences, successes and vulnerabilities, in the hopes that we can learn from the best that each has to offer. In a world that is darkening for the Jews once again, we need each other now more than ever.”(11)

This is the first High Holy Days we are celebrating together since the horrific attacks on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Chabad synagogue in Poway. In 2018 alone, the Anti-Defamation League recorded 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents in the United States, including the deadliest attack on Jews in the history of the U.S. Last year there also was a 105% increase in reported physical assaults on Jewish individuals compared to the previous year. Although Jews make up less than 2% of the U.S. population, we represent more than 13% of all hate crime victims. And this may surprise many of us: Jews are targeted for hate crimes more than every other religious group combined.(12)

I have spent hours over the last two years, working with school administrators from Burlingame, Hillsborough and San Mateo, and with teachers at both Burlingame Intermediate School and Burlingame High School, to address anti-Semitic incidents that have taken place on their campuses. The most recent, occurred this month.

As long as anti-Semitism exists in the world, the Jewish people needs to support each other. Israel was founded to support and preserve Jewish life. I am a Zionist, because I believe in the vital importance of Jewish self-determination. Jews throughout the world live better Jewish lives with the existence of the state of Israel. Our camps, our music, our literature, our intellectual vitality, and our Jewish pride are all made richer, because we are no longer a landless people, and are no longer the victims of history.
As supporters of the Jewish narrative, we have to learn to see Israel in all its complexity, because Jewish peoplehood depends on it. May this year bring us a deeper understanding of Jewish peoplehood and its connection to the state of Israel. Cain yehi ratzon. So may this be God’s will. Amen.

[1] Genesis 12:1

[2] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation, The Religious Significance of Israel (Masei 5779)

[3] Mechilta, Parshat Bo 14

[4] Ketubot 110b

51] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation, The Religious Significance of Israel (Masei 5779)

[6] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation, The Religious Significance of Israel (Masei 5779)

[7] Yossi Klein Halevi, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor: Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, page 71

[8] Rabbi Daniel Gordis, The New York Times, September 23, 2019

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Vlad Khaykin, Anti-Defamation League Associate Regional Director