Tag Archives: Israel

Faith – Israel’s Future

(My deepest appreciation goes to Micah Goodman who shared with me this paradigm for thinking about Israel at the Shalom Hartman Institute – July 2016).

In April of 1903, a Ukranian boy was found killed in the town of Dubossary.  Soon after, a Ukranian girl committed suicide by poisoning herself and died in a Jewish hospital.  The anti-Semitic newspaper Bessarabetz linked their deaths to the infamous blood-libel, claiming the children were killed so that their blood could be used to produce Passover Matzah.

At the urging of the Russian Orthodox priests on Easter Sunday, a mob poured out of the churches in Kishinev and over two days attacked the Jewish community with a viciousness that cannot be described.  Dozens of people, including infant children, were hideously murdered.  Dozens more women were gang raped and hundreds of houses destroyed.

The Hebrew poet Chaim Nahman Bialik was asked to visit Kishinev not long after and instead of submitting a report on the pogrom, he instead composed a poem called “The City of Slaughter.”  But Bialik’s reaction was not what one would typically expect. Instead of saying that the victims died in the sanctification of God’s name, he instead claims that their lives were taken in vain.  Bialik rails against the Jews for what he saw as their cowering passivity, their refusal to stand and fight.

Come, now, and I will bring you to their lairs
The privies, jakes and pigpens where the heirs
Of Hasmoneans lay, with trembling knees,
Concealed and cowering — the sons of the Maccabees!
The seed of saints, the scions of the lions!
Who, crammed by scores in all the sanctuaries of their shame,
So sanctified My name!

A young journalist named Vladimir Jabotinsky translated Bialik’s poem into Russian and from that inspiration became one of the most influential Zionist voices leading to the creation of the State of Israel.

Jabotinsky was born in 1880 in Odessa, which at the time was one of the most sophisticated centers of Jewish life in Europe.  As Zionist scholar Arthur Hertzberg explains, Jabotinsky “was raised much more on Russian than on Jewish culture.”[1]  At the age of 18, he skipped his last year of high school to become a foreign correspondent for one of the Odessa newspapers.  After a few months in Bern, he made his way to Rome, where he spent three years studying in the University.  He became a skilled orator and a talented writer, and he balanced both talents in his journalism career and his support for the growing Zionist movement.  Eventually Jabotinsky learned to speak eleven languages and could write in seven.

For Jabotinsky, Zionism represented the resuscitation of the Maccabees, the reclamation of the Jewish people’s ability to defend themselves.  The creation of a Jewish state, he thought, was necessary for the very survival of the Jewish people.  During World War I, Jabotinsky foresaw that the Ottoman Empire would collapse, and so single-handedly pushed the British to allow the creation of three Jewish battalions, where he himself enlisted as a private and rose to the rank of lieutenant.  Following the war and the periodic Arab riots and revolts of the 1920s, Jabotinsky lobbied for a rapid mass immigration of Jews to Palestine, a position rejected by Chaim Weizmann and the Zionist elite.

There was another young journalist named Theodor Herzl who built a very different vision of Zionism.  Twenty years older than Jabotinsky, Herzl was a young foreign correspondent who had also been raised in an assimilated household.  He was assigned to cover the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish captain in the French military, who was framed on charges of treason.  Covering the trial, Herzl was astounded when he heard cries of protesters outside the courthouse chanting, “Death to the Jews!  Death to the Jews!”  Despite all the claims of the enlightenment, Herzl had an epiphany that Europe would never accept the Jews.  He believed that if the Jews could actualize their dream of a homeland, and become a “normal” nation among the family of nations, then anti-Semitism would disappear.

Herzl wrote a book called Altneuland, meaning “Old-New Land”.  The book begins with the main characters, Friedrich Lowenberg, a young intellectual from Vienna, and his friend Kingscourt, who tired from European bourgeois decadence, and decide in 1903 to retire to the Cook islands in the South Pacific.  On their way, they stop in Jaffa, and find Palestine a pathetic, destitute, and backward land.  Twenty years later, on their way back to Europe, they stop again in Jaffa and find a thriving utopia.  The land is filled with technologically advanced industries, a booming economy and a growing, diverse population.  The Arabs enjoy equal rights with Jews, and people from all over the world live together in a free, sophisticated, harmonious society.

Building this utopian Jewish society, in Herzl’s imagination, would erase anti-Semitism.  The Arabs and the Jews live together in harmony because the Jews brought them a prosperity they never imagined they would enjoy.  As my teacher this summer Micah Goodman explained, in Herzl’s mind the Jews will want Zionism because it will allow them to leave Europe.  The Arabs will want Zionism because it will bring them the richness of Europe.

Herzl died on July 3, 1904.  Jabotinsky died on August 4, 1940.  Neither lived to see the birth of the State they both worked so hard to create.  But each of their voices continue to echo throughout the land.

Tal Becker is the principal deputy legal adviser at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and is a senior member of the Israeli peace negotiation team, including in the last round of talks mediated by US Secretary of State John Kerry. I had the privilege of studying with him during my weeks at the Hartman Institute this summer.  He explains that Israel sits in a Middle East today that can be divided into four groups:

  • There is a growing Shia Crescent, led by Iran and includes Hizbullah, Iraq, Lebanon, Assad, and now has a partner in Russia.
  • There are the Global Jihadists – the Sunni extremists like ISIS and Al Qaeda, each of which hates the other but both believe in an anti-Shia global agenda.
  • There are the Political Islamists, which include the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and their sponsors in Qatar, which have a nationalist character to their ideologies
  • Then there are the Old Guard Sunni countries which have not yet fallen – Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, who spend their time shoring up their own defenses against the threats they perceive from each of the first three groups.

Israel, he says, is essentially a Jewish old guard sunni country.  Looking around at the violent chaos and convulsions in the Sunni / Shia Islamist struggles, which have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, Israel’s senior objective seems to be to do whatever is necessary to prevent the rise of extremists from within and on Israel’s doorstep.

This is the echo of Jabotinsky.  Jabotinsky believed that the key to the saving the Jewish people was to build an army that would make us strong.  He believed that Zionism was about restoring Jewish honor and pride by promoting self-sufficiency and an ability to defend ourselves.  As Micah Goodman taught us, Jabotinsky believed in Isaiah’s vision of a world where the wolf would dwell with the lamb, but he believed it’s far better if you are the wolf.

But Becker asks a fundamental question: if your agenda is only prevention, is that enough to inspire people to send their children to the army?  Don’t we need a more expansive vision of what Israel should be than simply the largest Jewish ghetto in history?

This is the vision of Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum.  Raised in a religious Zionist home, during her time in the army, Tamar came to appreciate the books that could be found on a different bookshelf in a Jewish home.  While studying philosophy at Hebrew University, reading the works of the great thinkers Buber, Rosenzweig and Heschel, she pondered the fact that the great voices of Jewish thinking were all dead and gone.  It was at that time that Tamar told her teacher Professor Eliezer Schweid:  “I want you to know that I am dedicating my life to the renaissance of the Jewish community in Israel.”  Tamar studied for the rabbinate with the Masorti movement, the parallel to the conservative movement in Israel, and after a short stint as an associate rabbi in Westchester, New York, returned to Jerusalem to create Tzion: A Native Israeli Community.

Tamar speaks with a prophetic voice that is riveting and inspiring.  She shared with us this summer that her deepest pain is to see an Israel that focuses solely on its survival.  Like Herzl, she laments that “what should have been the habitat for the renewal of the Jewish soul is a place focused solely on survival.”  She implored us to re-read the words of the great Israeli statesman Ahad Ha-Am, who warned that if we save the Jewish body without saving the Jewish soul, we will create the scariest Jewish ghetto in history.”  Israel, she says, must be a body that is strong enough to survive with a soul that is still hopeful enough to dream.  Israel, she says, is a test for Jews and Judaism.  “A Jewish national project with … no imagination or dream will result in our children turning their back on this project.”

I spent the better part of two months in Israel this summer, two weeks touring with members of our congregation and four weeks in study at the Shalom Hartman Institute.  And throughout my time in nearly every conversation I could feel the tension and the pull of the dreamers and the skeptics, the descendants of Herzl and the descendants of Jabotinsky.

On the one hand, I found a state of Israel at its most cynical.  The government negotiated a plan to build an egalitarian section of the Western Wall that would be open to all who wanted to pray in Judaism’s holiest site free from the restrictions of the Haredi rabbinate, only to see the administration renounce the deal they had negotiated because of pressure from the Chief Rabbinate and the ultra-orthodox.  I saw so many friends I admire shrug their shoulders in despair as they lamented the fact that Mahmoud Abbas, who is now in his 11th year of a five-year term as President of the Palestinian Authority, will not negotiate a peace agreement, and even if he would, has no power or ability to deliver it.  I saw an Israel that seeks to understand how 19 families control 60% of its wealth, how the small minority of ultra-orthodox dictate the religious lives of the larger Jewish majority, and who struggle to imagine a future in the world’s most dangerous neighborhood.

There is a painful irony in Israel today.  Goodman explains that 70% of Israelis think that we have to leave the West Bank because the occupation not only threatens Israel’s future demographically but morally as well.  And 70% of Israelis think we cannot possibly give up the West Bank because that will return Israel to indefensible borders and will invite the horror and chaos of the Middle East into the heart of the State.

But just when we feel overcome with a sense of despair, we can be inspired by what Herzl and Jabotinsky and all my teachers at Hartman share as their primary value – Emunah – faith.  They believe in the future of the Jewish people.  They believe that in strengthening Israel’s body, we can redeem Israel’s spirit. They believe that as Tamar taught me, Emunah will be the spiritual training system that will empower us to rebel against the natural stress of survival to find meaning and reason to survive.

And here is where I found that faith come alive. Last summer I visited the City of Lod, which lies adjacent to Ben Gurion airport and was once an Arab city whose Arab population was mostly expelled during Israel’s war for independence.  Today, Lod is a mixed city of Israeli Arabs, working class new Ethiopian and Russian immigrants, and a growing number of religious Jews.

There is a community center in a depressed area of town, adjacent to a rutted field and the ruins of an 19th century inn.  The community center is run by two women, a Muslim woman Faten and a Jewish woman Yafit, who despite all that divides them, have built a close friendship. In the roughest section of the city, they have not only built a model of coexistence, but of collaboration and integration. “We don’t agree on most things,” Faten said, “but I’m not going anywhere and neither is she.  So we have to deal with each other, we have to know each other, we have to figure out how to understand each other so we can live together in peace.”

It is the same faith in the future for Israel we find in Faten and Yafit that I also found in my extraordinary teachers at Hartman this summer. It is the same faith that drove Herzl and Jabotinsky in years gone by, and is the faith that will sustain Israel in these turbulent and difficult times. It is a faith that despite all the obstacles we face, we are strong and resolute, idealistic and hopeful.  We still believe we can plant in that rocky and arid soil a sapling of hope that will sink deep roots and grow tall and strong, a living and vibrant Tree of life that will not only blossom with the wisdom of Torah and tradition, but provide shade for all who seek to sit together in peace.  Im Tirzu, Ayn Zo Agadah – as Herzl said, If you will it, then it is no dream.

[1] Arthur Hertzberg, The Zionist Idea. New York: JPS, 1959, p. 557.


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The Framework With Iran – Dayenu?

Yesterday, the president announced that “together with our allies and partners, has reached a historic understanding with Iran, which, if fully implemented, will prevent it from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

As I prepare to sit down with family and friends for our seder meals, I don’t know what to feel.  Part of me wants to feel some sense of joy or relief.  The leaders of the strongest nations on the planet, each with different and competing agendas for their own place in the world, came together united to prevent Iran from developing the most fearsome weapon humanity has devised or known.  The Council on Foreign Relations’ Michael Levi wrote that “The nuclear limits – particularly those on the Iranian supply chain – are surprisingly strong and significant.”[1]

William J. Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and former deputy secretary of state summed up the challenge facing negotiators.  “In a perfect world,” he wrote, “there would be no nuclear enrichment in Iran, and its existing enrichment facilities would be dismantled. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We can’t wish or bomb away the basic know-how and enrichment capability that Iran has developed. What we can do is sharply constrain it over a long duration, monitor it with unprecedented intrusiveness, and prevent the Iranian leadership from enriching material to weapons grade and building a bomb.”[2]

There has been much commentary as to whether such an arms control scheme can work.  Will Iran try to deceive the monitors?  Will such monitoring effectively prevent Iran from moving forward on their designs toward a nuclear weapon?  At the AIPAC conference in early March, I heard Ambassador Brad Gordon remind us that inspectors are just that: inspectors.  Even if their inspections turn up evidence that Iran has decided to break provisions of the agreement, what can they do?  How fast can the world’s leaders come together to address that eventuality?  It took years of careful diplomacy and negotiations to impose the sanctions regime that brought Iran to the table.  How long would it take to impose such sanctions again, and how long would it take for their effects to be felt in Tehran?

We are not fortune tellers, sooth-sayers, or clairvoyant prophets with a crystal ball into the future.  We will have to see what the deal looks like with meat on its bones.  For example, as Michael Levi writes, it is unclear how Iran will reduce its stockpile of Low Enriched Uranium from 10,000 kg to 300 kg. Will Iran ship the material out of country? Will it blend it down to LEU that’s enriched to less than 3.67 percent? Will it convert the LEU into fuel?”  It is also unclear as to the pace and method of sanctions relief.  Which sanctions will be removed first?  How quickly will Iran’s economy realize the benefits from normalizing its banking relationships and energy sales?

But what worries me more, frankly, is what happens next.  Iran used its nuclear ambition to gain economic concessions from the west.  We have already seen that despite the pressures and constraints on Iran’s economy, they have still found the resources and willingness to project what Prime Minister Netanyahu aptly described as “tentacles of terror” throughout the region.  Iran projects power into Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and now Yemen.  Despite UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for the complete disarmament of militia groups in Lebanon, Iran has armed Hizbullah with what some claim is an arsenal of nearly 100,000 missiles.

In 2006, Hizbullah launched more than 4,000 missiles at Israel.  It is estimated that Hizbullah now has double the arsenal, and according to Col. Aviram Hasson, Iran is a “train engine that is not stopping for a moment. It is manufacturing new and advanced ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. It is turning unguided rockets that had an accuracy range of kilometers into weapons that are accurate to within meters.”[3]

Iran’s military continues to state its goal of “wiping Israel off the map”.  According to a Kol Yisrael report, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, head of Iran’s volunteer Basij Force, reaffirmed during a recent conference the goal of Israel’s destruction is non-negotiable. Can Iran achieve this goal?  No.  Israel is too strong and possesses its own nuclear threat.

But the nuclear threat does not completely deter aggression.  Despite America’s massive nuclear capability, we still have fought wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan that have claimed the lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers, and hundreds of thousands of lives in the war zones themselves.  Even without nuclear capability, Iran has used its proxies to project its power throughout the region.

There are many countries in the world who possess the technology Iran seeks to hold who do not have a nuclear bomb.  Canada produces 16 percent of its electricity with nuclear power, but possesses no nuclear weapon. Spain produces nearly 20 percent of its electricity with nuclear power, but possesses no nuclear weapon.  And of all the countries in the world whom you would expect to want a nuclear weapon, since they alone have experienced the horror of what those weapons can impose, Japan possesses no nuclear weapon.

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote on Wednesday that he believes that this agreement may help create “the conditions for Iran to become a normal country.”[4]  But I can’t help thinking that normal countries do not threaten to wipe others off the map.

The biggest problem with the deal is that it fails to address the underlying real threat that Iran represents, which is a desire to foment belligerency, extremism, and war throughout a region over which it seeks to expand its hegemony.  A “good deal” would not simply have blocked all paths for Iran to build a nuclear bomb, but would have blocked all paths for Iran to pursue its hegemonic aims.  A good deal would have tied sanctions relief to Iran pulling back its weaponization and military support for proxies like Hamas, the Houthis in Yemen, and Hizbullah.

Sadly, the real threat that Iran poses to Israel and the region is only bolstered now by the billions of dollars Iran will eventually realize from sanctions relief.  Iran has strategically used its investment in nuclear technology to strengthen its position to project its power into a region that has much to fear from it.

I wish I could look at the framework for the agreement with Iran and say, “Dayenu – it’s enough for us.”  Sadly, I don’t really think it is.  But the Holy One did not stop with taking us out of Egypt. It wasn’t enough. We needed the sea to split for us, we needed to be satisfied in the desert, we needed Shabbat and to be led to Mount Sinai.  I pray that the Holy One will continue to help us be defended from our enemies, and that we will soon open the door for Elijah to see the blessings of peace fill our homes and the world we all share.

[1] “Five Thoughts on the Iran Nuclear Agreement” by Micahel Levi.  Council on Foreign Relations,  April 2, 2015.

[2] “The Fruits of Diplomacy With Iran” by William J. Burns.  The Washington Post, April 3, 2015.

[3] “Iran Is Placing Guided Warheads on Hezbollah Rockets” by Yaakov Lapin. The Jerusalem Post, March 31, 2015

[4] “A Nuclear Deal With Iran Is Not Just About Bombs” by Nicholas Kristof. The New York Times, April 1, 2015.


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War and Sacrifice – Rosh HaShanah Morning 5775

On September 11, 2002, I came home late, pulled off my shoes, and flopped down on the bed in my room.  It had been a very difficult, powerful day.  It was the first anniversary of the terror attacks, and I had chaired the Livingston, New Jersey town’s commemorative events, which had culminated that evening with an interfaith prayer service for several thousand people at the high school football stadium.

I flipped on the TV and up came my good friend David Letterman. Then I started thinking: who could David Letterman have on his show on the first anniversary of 9/11 without offending … everyone.  His only guest that night – former President Bill Clinton.  They had a very substantive conversation, not at all what you would normally expect from David Letterman on Late Night.  Then David asked the former president a powerful question.

It must be difficult, he said, to relinquish the presidency, and then to sit and watch events unfold over which you used to have some power or control. What’s your biggest regret or frustration now that you’re out of office?

Clinton replied, “The Israeli-Palestinian peace process.  We were so close, and we couldn’t get it done.  The deal we had at Taba in January 2001 is eventually going to be the deal.  It’s the only deal.  So the question is, how many more people are going to die before the two sides realize they have to make that deal?”

Twelve years later, it’s still the question.  How many more people are going to die before this conflict ends?  Since the second Palestinian uprising began in late 2000, nearly 1400 Israelis have been killed in terrorist activities and military operations, and in the same period more than 9,000 Palestinians have died in the conflict.  In this summer’s war alone, more than 2100 Palestinians and over 70 Israelis were killed.  Eighty percent of Palestinian deaths were young men between 18 and 35, all but five of the Israelis killed were soldiers of the same age.

Our tradition has taught through the centuries that a single human life is of ultimate, precious, infinite value.  We all know the famous piece from the Mishna: “Whoever saves a single human life, the Torah considers it as if that person had saved and entire world. But whoever destroys a single human life, the Torah considers it as if that person had destroyed an entire world.”[1]

How can we not grieve for the tragic murders of Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrah, killed for the crime of being Jewish and needing a ride home from school?  How can we not grieve for the terrible loss of Max Steinberg, who grew up in Los Angeles and decided to make Aliyah and join the IDF at 22 after participating in a Birthright trip.  Despite having no family in Israel, more than 30,000 people came to pay their respects when he was killed in action July 20.  How can we not grieve for four-year old Daniel Tragerman, killed while playing in his living room when a mortar hit his house in southern Israel. Each life lost, a world destroyed.

And how can we also not grieve for the tragic murder of Mohammad Abu Khdeir, killed for the crime of being Palestinian while standing on the street outside his house.  How can we also not grieve for Mohammad Bakr, a nine year old boy who was killed in a missile attack while playing on the beach?  Each life lost, a world destroyed.

That’s why the Torah portion we read this morning seems to make so little sense.  Knowing that to destroy a single human life is to destroy an entire world, the Holy One asks Abraham to self-destruct.  “Take your son,” asks the Holy One, “your only son, Isaac, and get yourself going to the land of Moriah, and offer him up as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I tell you. (Gen. 22:2)”  I never get over the sheer audacity of the test.  How can God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son?  How could Abraham agree?  What could be so valuable, so vital, so important, that we should be willing to sacrifice ourselves and our children?

I thought a lot about this question over the summer.  In June, I visited the World War II memorial in Washington, DC on the National Mall.  Seventy-five years ago this month, on September 1, 1939, German forces invaded Poland, igniting the long-simmering fuse that exploded into the deadliest conflict in human history. If we include war-related disease and famine, 85 million people were killed in World War II including the Six Million of our people tortured and murdered in the precisely engineered Nazi death machine.

Initially America refused to fight. But after the heinous attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, America could no longer sit idly by while our neighbors bled.  Eventually more than 16,353,000 Americans served in the Second World War.  407,316 were killed; 671,846 were injured.

Looking out at the Lincoln memorial and the reflecting pool I stood facing the Wall of Freedom, where 4,048 gold stars commemorate 100 fallen soldiers each.  In front of the wall, I stopped at the simple extraordinary message beneath: “Here lies the price of freedom.”

As hard as it is for us to imagine Isaac’s journey to Mount Moriah, it is even harder to truly understand the journey of those who served.    As I stood at the memorial in the middle of June, I thought about what had taken place exactly seventy years ago.  The Allied invasion at Normandy, Operation Overlord, was the largest military operation in the history of the world.  The landing involved over 5,000 ships, 11,000 aircraft, and 175,000 men.  Many of the first men to storm the beaches were not yet 20 years old.  By the end of the day there were more than 10,000 casualties and 4,900 killed.

Eisenhower and his leadership team understood deeply what was at stake.  In his famous address, Eisenhower said: “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months.  The eyes of the world are upon you.  The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you…”[2]  Eisenhower spent the night of June 5, 1944 among the paratroopers loading the aircraft.  When the last plane roared off, Eisenhower turned to his driver, Kay Summersby.  She saw tears in his eyes.  He began to walk slowly toward his car. “Well,” he said quietly, “it’s on.”

War is a horrible, awful, terrible thing.  It wreaks havoc and destruction, and causes good people to experience profane and unholy phenomena beyond our comprehension.  It causes people to endure and commit ghastly acts of violence.  It imposes horrible suffering and hardship.  People are wounded and maimed in both body and psyche, and people are killed in the prime of life. “Here lies the price of freedom…”

Isaac’s expedition to Mount Moriah was nothing compared to the journey of the men who would land on Omaha Beach.  The English Channel churned from stormy weather with six foot waves washing over the Higgins boats for hours and hours.  Every man was seasick, drenched, and exhausted.  The men who landed on Omaha beach arrived only to find that despite the aerial bombardment, the guns of the Atlantic Wall were still intact. The horror they faced defies description.  Entire platoons were massacred before they could hit the beach.  Some men, weighed down by 80 pounds of gear, drowned before reaching shore. Others managed to make it to shore only to be shredded by German fire.

Private George Roach was an assistant flamethrower.  He weighed 125 pounds and carried over 100 pounds of gear ashore.  Somehow, he made it to the seawall and helped the medics tend to the wounded and dying.  “Over the years,” he said in 1990, “I don’t think there has been a day that has gone by that I haven’t thought of those men who didn’t make it.”[3]

As I stood at the wall, thinking of the extraordinary stories of valor and misery that accompanied the invasion at Normandy, I was overwhelmed with awe and grief and sadness. My visit to the World War II memorial came just days after I returned from Israel.  Little more than a week before, while sitting around the Shabbat table with my dear friend Rabbi Nir Barkin, we learned of the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers.  The Barkins are like most Israeli families.  Their oldest daughter Amit was traveling in South America, having recently completed her years of army service.  Their middle son, Omri, deliberately sought out an elite unit to serve, and was home for Shabbat. During our dinner, Omri excused himself, and went to pack his bags to return to base.

Standing at the memorial, staring at those 4,000 gold stars, I thought of Omri, whom I have watched grow from a sweet little boy into a powerfully built, strong young man.  Omri left his parents that Shabbat evening June 12 and eventually was sent to fight in Gaza.

Sitting in his home weeks later on a Shabbat evening in July, Rabbi Barkin reflected on his worry and anguish:

“I choke when I hear the phrases ‘A war for our home’ and ‘An unavoidable war’ – not because I have the slightest doubt that these statements are true, but because this is the first war in which Anat and I are parents of a combat soldier at the front. …

“We somehow get through the days… but the nights. The nightmares cross decades of [our own] traumas. They leave us with black circles under our eyes, with a perpetual feeling that it’s difficult to breathe and with a terrible fear – a fear of an unexpected knock on the door, of a Red Code siren, of a telephone call notifying us that…

“We are so impatient to hear the phone ringing with the special ringtone we’ve set for Omri’s calls. So impatient to hear his beloved voice in real time saying “Hi Abba….I’m okay”[4]

Thankfully on August 6, Nir emailed me a picture Omri took of himself on the bus ride back to his base.  His father wrote: “He’s finally out … We start breathing again.”  But we know that for 64 other families, their nightmare is permanent.

The Jewish people are a little people.  Of the more than seven billion people on planet earth, we are but 2/10 of one percent.  The State of Israel comprises .01 percent of the land mass on earth.  It is right, and it is just, that when an enemy shoots thousands of missiles and mortars at civilian populations we must do whatever is necessary to protect and defend ourselves.  When an enemy builds a labyrinth of sophisticated tunnels under the border for the purpose of kidnapping and murder, it is right and it is just that those tunnels be destroyed.

But more than that.  We believe in something, an idea that is precious and holy and good.  We believe in building a world that is founded on justice and compassion, on freedom and understanding, a world in which women have equal rights and equal opportunities to live as they so choose, where the vulnerable and the weak are afforded collective care and protection, a world in which we love our neighbor as ourselves.  We believe in a world where the rule of law is imposed by the consent of the governed, where the freedom of spoken or written or artistic expression is sacrosanct, where all people are free to express their religious beliefs as they choose.  We believe in the idea that human life is of infinite and ultimate value, and that love is what gives life enduring meaning and holiness.

These are values worth defending.  These are values worth fighting for.  There are times when, much as we detest all that war is, we are obligated to fight.  Not only must we fight to defend ourselves from aggression and attack, there are times when we must fight to defend the values and principles that make for a free and good society.

War is incredibly seductive, alluring, and addictive. Chris Hedges writes in his book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning that war can be an elixir, enticing, and intoxicating.  It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble.  It makes us feel tremendous power and it unleashes our need to avenge suffering and injustice. It can appear to give life meaning.[5]

So while there are times when we have to fight, and when we have to ask our children to fight for us, we cannot in that fight sacrifice the values for which we’re fighting in the first place.  We cannot rejoice in the suffering of our enemies, nor glory in their downfall.  We cannot employ inhumane means to accomplish justified ends.  And we must, no matter how angry or bitter or wounded we become, ever give up our pursuit for peace.

It’s amazing to think that seventy years since the United States led the world in vanquishing the Nazis and the Japanese, reducing Europe to rubble and incinerating Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that we now can count the Germans and the Japanese among our closest allies.  It is because in the aftermath of our victory, we chose to administer justice, and help our enemies rebuild their nations in keeping with the values for which we fought.  It is because we fought the evil in our enemies, but never let go of the promise of peace.

On this Rosh HaShanah, I think of the young men and women I know in our congregation who chose to serve in our nation’s armed forces.  I think of the men and women I know who answered the call to serve in our nation’s past efforts to lead the free world in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Viet Nam, Korea, and World War II.  I think of them and I honor their sacrifice, I mourn their losses, and give thanks for the gift they have given me and my children.  If you are a veteran, having served in America, our Allies, or Israel’s armed forces and you are worshipping with us this morning, I ask you please, if you are able, to rise, so that we may salute you and your service.

And for us, as we give thanks that we spend this Rosh HaShanah in the peace and tranquility of this sacred congregation and privileged community, we must look in the mirror and ask ourselves a simple question: Do I live my life in a manner that honors the sacrifice of those who fought for me?  What am I giving to better my society so that I can repay the debt I owe to those who gave so much for me?  Do I give enough of my time, my energy, or my resources to better the lives of others?  Does what I say, what I write, what I forward on email, what I talk about with friends over dinner, contribute to building the kind of society those who went to war fought to protect?  Am I teaching my children the importance of selfishness or the value of service?

The New Year 5775 begins with a sense that what is good and right in the world is collapsing.  We pray that those whose hearts are hardened with hatred be softened to embrace compassion and love.  We pray that those who see no answer but to slaughter and maim will have their swords turned to ploughshares and their spears to pruning hooks. We pray that soon and in our own day, we will see a world in which the vision of the prophets is true: a world where “national shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither do they study war anymore.”  May the one who makes peace in the high heavens, let peace descend on us, on all Israel, and all the world.

[1] Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5

[2] Stephen E. Ambrose: D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994, pp. 170-171.

[3] ibid, pp. 330-331.

[4] My thanks to Rabbi Nir Barkin, Kehilat YOZMA, Modiin, Israel, for sharing his thoughts with his congregation, and with me.

[5] Chris Hedges, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, New York: Anchor Books, 2002 p. 3.


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