Sermon For Yom Kippur Afternoon – The Gift of Torah to Israel

     “What’s in the box?”  These are words I will never forget as long as I live.  It’s amazing how four simple words can change your life.

     It started as a dream.  Nearly five years ago, I received a call from Tracey Grossman, a young member of our congregation who has been a teacher in our religious school.  Tracey had a dream.  She wanted to find a way to help a congregation, somewhere in the world, that had no Torah scroll be able to have one to call their own.  We sat and talked and from her dream came Temple Beth El’s Torah project, where hundreds of members of our community had the spiritual joy of helping to write a new Torah scroll for our congregation.  The idea was that once our new Torah scroll was written, we would contribute one of Temple Beth El’s Torah scrolls to a congregation in need.

For years, we sought to find a partner.  We investigated congregations in Latin America and eastern Europe, and then, through the help of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, were connected to a congregation of Ethiopian Jews in Jerusalem who had no Torah scroll of their own.  I was shocked.  How could a synagogue in the State of Israel be without a Torah scroll?  In conversations with the leaders of the community there, I learned that the Ethiopian community there used Torah scrolls on loan from other synagogues, who were pressuring the Ethiopian congregation to return them.

We made arrangements for the Temple’s Torah scroll to be repaired.  Rabbi Bialo, who worked with Temple Beth El in writing our new Torah scroll, examined every word and made sure the entire scroll was perfect, and pronounced it kosher.  He brought the scroll back to the Temple, gave me a long cardboard box, several yards of bubble wrap, and foam packing peanuts to secure the scroll for the flight to Israel.  We wrapped our scroll carefully in a tallit, covered it completely with bubble-wrap, placed the scroll in the box as Rabbi Bialo had instructed us, added extra insulation with our group’s T-shirts, taped it up, and checked it with ElAl for our flight to Israel.

After claiming all our luggage, we made our way through customs where I heard those four words: “What’s in the box?”

“T-Shirts for our group, and a Torah Scroll.”

“A Torah scroll?”

“Yes, a Torah scroll.  It’s our synagogue’s Torah scroll that we are giving as a gift to the Ethiopian congregation in Katamon, in Jerusalem.”

“I see,” said the inspector.  “Let me get my boss.  Wait here.”

I was confused.  What could possibly be the problem?

When the inspector came, she asked again, “You have a Torah scroll?”

“Yes,” I said, retelling the story.

“Well, what’s it worth?” she asked.

“What’s it worth?  It’s a Torah scroll.  It’s priceless.”

“Well, you are going to have to leave it here with us.”

“Whatever for?” I asked.

“You’re going to have to pay tax.”

“Tax?  On a Torah scroll?”

“Of course.  It’s like anything else you would bring into the country.  It’s worth something, and you’ll have to pay the tax.”

I was stunned, confused.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  This was, after all, the State of Israel, the Jewish state.  Bad enough that an Israeli congregation couldn’t get a Torah scroll of their own, but now they wanted to charge an import tax on ours?  There was nothing I could do.  The rest of the group was waiting on the bus. I had to leave it with them.

In Israel there is a phenomenon called “Protectzia!”  Protectzia is what gets things done – by drawing on who you know.  A friend of our guide works for Ya’akov Ne’eman, the former Justice Minister of Israel.  After phone calls from him, and the intervention of a few other people of influence, and $900, we finally had our Torah scroll.

I think about that, for as we have reflected in our service this afternoon, today is the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur war.  With valor, courage, and humanity, with the sacrifice of thousands who gave life and limb, the State of Israel and Jews around the world rallied to fight and save the Jewish state.

The magic of Israel is that it is more than a country for Jewish people.  The power of Israel is that it is, fundamentally, a Jewish state.  It is, and should be, a state that is animated by the texts and traditions of our people, whose calendar is reflective of Jewish time, and whose society is governed by the mandating eternal values of Judaism.

Israel is at its best when Jewish teaching and tradition flows through its veins.  For example, the Torah teaches that we cannot stand idly by while our neighbor bleeds, and that we must extend care even to our enemies  In chapter 5 of the book of second Kings, we read the story of Na’aman, the commander of the Aramean army, who becomes stricken with leprosy.  He learns that the prophet Elisha is known to be able to cure disease, so he asks the king of Aram to send a letter to the king of Israel, asking if he can visit the prophet of his enemy to seek a cure.  The king of Israel is anxious and perplexed, but Elisha understands that he must extend love and understanding, even to the leader of his enemy’s army.

And today, as war rages in Syria, Israeli hospitals in the north have treated over 100 injured men, women, and children, despite the fact that Syria and Israel remain in a State of War.

We take a look at what Israel has achieved and we stand back in awe.  In just 65 years, Israel has created a prosperous and multifaceted society that expresses excellence from nearly every pore.  Israel boasts universities, orchestras, musicians, artists, and athletes that are among the best in the world.  Israeli technology and inventiveness have not only created the most powerful army in the region, but also the most powerful economy in the region.  Israelis bring things back to life, whether in making the desert bloom or in pioneering medical research.  We have so much to be proud of.

But what happens when Israel forgets the Torah from which it finds its reason for being?  What happens to Israel when the Torah itself becomes just another import?  We cannot judge the strength and success of the Zionist enterprise merely by the growth of GDP.

Yossi Klein HaLevi writes that “at its core, Zionism is the ideology of Jewish peoplehood…. To be true to itself, Zionism must accommodate all parts of the Jewish people.”[1]

Which is why we still ask more, demand more of Israel.  Israel cannot be all she ought to be so long as Jews like you and I cannot pray together at the Western Wall, in the custom that speaks to us beyond the rigid confines of ultra-orthodox norms.  Israel cannot be all she ought to be so long as there are bus routes where women are forced to sit in the back to accommodate the needs of Haredi men.  Israel cannot be all she ought to be so long as there are Ethiopian synagogues who have no Torah scroll of their own.

But what I love the most about Israel is that Torah is constantly a part of the national conversation.  As Israeli and Palestinian negotiators finally returned to the table this summer, Rabbi Donniel Hartman reminded Israel that peace is not a process, but a value whose pursuit is demanded of us by Torah.  “Like all values,” he writes, “peace is difficult to attain. The world of realpolitik does not merely question it but attempts to erode its place within our system of values. In a harsh world in which naivete is often dangerous, the value of peace is often undermined.”  At the same time, he also demands that we never allow the underlying values of our people and the state to be suffocated by “cynicism” and “realism”. “The meaning of holding something to be a value is that I shape my world in its light and do not allow the world to shape it… As a value whose implementation never ceases to obligate me, I think about it, speak about it, dream about it and constantly ask myself one simple question: What do I have to do today to bring peace closer?”[2]

We must approach the peace process not simply as another exercise in which we enshrine the status quo, but as an opportunity to realize the values and principles that make Israel great.  At the same time, our obligation to seek peace must be pursued with open eyes and awareness of the unfortunate realities of the 21st century Middle East.

Israel faces enormous challenges.  In Syria, the world has witnessed a bloodbath, the deaths of more than 100,000 men, women, and children, with the commission of any number of crimes against humanity, most recently the deployment of chemical weapons on thousands of civilians. America and the world’s collective ineptitude in formulating a response I fear has signaled most clearly to Iran that they have the world’s blessing to build nuclear weapons. The political turmoil in Egypt calls into question the foundations of our peace agreement and the region’s stability.  Israel occupies an ever growing population of Palestinians, and must manage a right-wing settler movement that commits acts of violence and vandalism in response to decisions of Israel’s supreme court.  Israel continues to grapple with a yawning gap between rich and poor, with how to integrate the growing number of ultra-orthodox Haredim into the larger fabric of Israeli society, with how to maintain a society that is both Jewish and democratic.

This Yom Kippur we celebrate Israel’s 65th year, and celebrate all her accomplishments and triumphs.  But Rabbi Hartman asks what we want Israel to be in her 66th?  “… will we,” he asks, “be able to celebrate a year in which our national identity reconnected with its noblest values and aspirations?”

In the Midrash, in the Sifrei to Deuteronomy, R. Shimon bar Yohai offers a parable: “A king brought two ships and tied them together and placed them in the middle of the sea and built palaces on them. As long as the ships are tied to each other, the palaces stand, but once they separate, the palaces cannot stand. So it is,” he said, “with Israel.”[3]

I will never forget, the night our group brought our congregation’s Torah scroll to the Ethiopian community of Katamon, the Jerusalem neighborhood in which they live and pray.  I walked up the stairs to the community center, holding the scroll we had redeemed from captivity in the customs office at Ben Gurion airport.  The rabbi of the community, Shachar Ayalin, came over, and embraced the Torah scroll like a long, lost love.  Immediately, he began to dance, swaying with excitement and joy with the Torah scroll in his arms, the community circling around him.  Men danced with men; women danced with women, our Ethiopian hosts embracing us arm in arm, hand in hand.  After dinner, the entire community processed through the streets of Katamon, with music blaring, voices singing, each of us taking turns carrying the gift of Torah beneath the rolling chuppah, with candy raining down from the apartment balconies of Jews of every variety, sharing in our collective excitement and joy.  With a kiss, the Torah scroll, which was written over 100 years ago in Kiev, and which had traveled to America, to Boca Raton, was now, finally, at home in the land of Israel.

The Jewish people is a palace built on the twin decks of the State of Israel and the Diaspora.  Our people will be cast in the sea should one or the other fail.  But we must never forget that the palace is simply an ark, an ark in which we reposit the gift of Torah, for without Torah, without the flowering of the Jewish spirit in all its many varieties and expressions, we and the State of Israel, are simply an empty cabinet.

The Prophet Micah said: “Ki Mitzion Tetzei Torah, U-D’var Adonai MiYerushalayim: From Zion will Torah go forth, and the word of God from Jerusalem.”  May it be that the spirit of Torah will flow forth from Israel, in all it does, in all it is, and in all, together, we will help it to be.

[1] Yossi Klein HaLevi, “Time To End The Disgrace At The Wall” on Machon Shalom Hartman blog, May 19, 2013.

[2] Donniel Hartman, “It’s Not About Peace As A Process But Peace As A Value” on the Machon Shalom Hartman blog, April 14, 2013.


[3] Sifrei Deuteronomy, par. 346.


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