Tag Archives: Israel

Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Morning – Transcending Blame

 

In the spring of 2006, Lieutenant Commander Jocko Willink led US Navy SEAL Team Three, Task Unit Bruiser into what became known as the “Battle of Ramadi” – the effort to liberate the war-torn capital city of Al Anbar province from the grips of the Iraqi insurgency. The first major operation kicked off before sunrise and within hours, both SEAL team elements were attacked and embroiled in serious gunfights.

Rolling up behind an Abrams tank, Jocko saw its main gun pointed at a building. He asked the gunnery sergeant: “What’s going on?”  The sergeant related that they were engaged with hard-core enemy fighters who were putting up a serious fight.

Jocko looked around. Something didn’t add up. They were close to where one of the other SEAL teams was supposed to be. In the mayhem they hadn’t reported their exact location, but it should have been close. And the group he was with wasn’t supposed to have entered that sector for a few hours.

“Hold what you got, Gunny,” he said. “I’m going to check it out.” The sergeant looked at him like he was crazy or suicidal. They had been engaged in a vicious firefight with enemy fighters who could not be dislodged. With his rifle at the ready, he kicked the door down to find himself face-to-face with one of the SEAL platoon chiefs, who stared at him with wide-eyed surprise.

At that moment it all became clear. In the fog of war, each thought the other was the Iraqi insurgent enemy. It was a blue-on-blue – friendlies attacking one another – the worst thing that could happen.

The next day, the investigation began. There was frustration, anger, and disappointment. How could this have happened? Jocko went back over everything: the list of mistakes was substantial. But something was missing. Who was to blame for this horrible mistake?

“Then it hit me,” he said. “There was only one person to blame for everything that had gone wrong on the operation: me. … I am the commander…. I am responsible for every action that takes place on the battlefield. There is no one to blame but me.”

As painful and difficult as it was to admit that to the troops he led and his superior officers, Jocko learned that the best leaders don’t just take responsibility for their job, they take Extreme Ownership of everything that impacts the mission. As individuals, we often attribute the success of others to luck or circumstances and make excuses for our own failures and the failures of our team. We blame our own poor performance on back luck, circumstances beyond our control, or poorly performing subordinates – anyone but ourselves. Taking ownership when things go wrong requires extraordinary humility and courage. And that humility and courage is often hard to come by.

Jewish tradition posited an extraordinary idea in ancient times – the concept that humanity was created in God’s image. We are reminded of the teaching in the Mishna that God created swarms of every living thing but just one human being to teach that to destroy a single human life is as if one destroyed an entire world, but to save a single life is as if one saved an entire world. The Mishna teaches: one single person was created so that one should not say to another, ‘My father was greater than your father’. … Therefore everyone must say, “For my sake was the world created.”[1]

This idea has finally taken root in modern society. For so many years, groups and individuals suffered persecution, discrimination, and slaughter because of humanity’s inability to see other human beings as holy and divine. People used to believe that a person’s status ought be determined by class or skin color, by gender, or ethnic heritage or religious faith. But over time, western societies came to understand that each and every human life is of equal and infinite value, not by virtue of who they are on the outside, but by virtue of their inherent holiness within.

And the realization that every single life is precious changed the world. In America, the understanding of each person’s inherent inner worth is what inspired Abolitionists to fight for the Emancipation of black slaves. It is what inspired the suffrage movement one hundred years ago that gave women the right to vote. It is what inspired Gandhi to lead a non-violent campaign to liberate the people of India. It is what inspired the Jewish people to claim their right to self-determination, and to return to the land of Israel to rebuild their ancient and modern homeland. It is what inspired Martin Luther King to declare on the National Mall: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

Because we believe a person has essential infinite worth, when a society nevertheless continues to denigrate or demean or marginalize someone we naturally feel overwhelmed with outrage. “It is not enough,” writes Francis Fukuyama, “that I have a sense of my own worth if other people do not publicly acknowledge it or, worse yet, if they denigrate me or don’t acknowledge my existence. It is not the inner self that has to be made to conform to society’s rules, but society itself that needs to change.”[2]

When black children go to school in a building so neglected that wild mushrooms are growing in the classrooms, where there are no books or materials, and where the teacher cares so little that he arrives in class, writes an assignment on the board, and then proceeds to sit and read the newspaper, they are entitled to outrage at a system that sees them not as individuals of infinite worth, but as people whose futures and education are expendable.

When women go to work and are forced to endure daily comments about their bodies or their dress, or suffer unwanted advances or sexual harassment or assault, they are entitled to outrage at a system that sees them as objects for someone else’s gratification.

And when our blood boils with outrage we produce the greatest soul-destroying toxin in the universe: resentment.

Resentment is the spiritual poison that is released when our needs are not met, when we feel undervalued, belittled, or discounted. Resentment is the number one toxin that destroys relationships. It is not simply the poison produced from experiencing intolerance and hate. It is also the poison that causes intolerance and hate.

Antisemitism is often called “the oldest hatred.” It is a shape-shifting virus that Deborah Lipstadt likens to Herpes – it lies dormant until stress and a hospitable atmosphere awakens the infection.[3]

Eighty years ago, the Nazis were able to combine two perverse theories into an explosive recipe for hate. In the aftermath of World War I, the brutal consequences of the Treaty of Versailles assaulted the German people’s sense of dignity and self-worth. Hitler played on the Germany’s sense of victimization and resentment by pinning blame on the Jews for their misery and misfortune. In addition, theories of eugenics taught that Jews themselves were subhuman, and so not entitled to the same human dignity and respect to which Germans themselves felt entitled. Germany’s emphatic embrace of resentment and hate transformed mechanized murder into a moral good and genocide a moral response.

We see the same profession of victimhood and resentment by today’s modern antisemites. The advent of globalization and the massive disparity of wealth between the elite and most Americans has prompted a wave of resentment and sense of victimization across the right wing. The Neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us” subscribe to a perverse theory that white Americans are victims of a global conspiracy by Jews who diabolically pull the world’s to replace them with non-white immigrants. It’s the Jews who are to blame.

Robert Bowers, may his name be blotted out, who killed eleven people and injured seven at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in the deadliest attack ever on a Jewish community in the United States, was attracted to websites that promoted that same sense of victimhood. He bore deep resentment toward the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society for their work in assisting participants in the Central American caravans moving toward the United States. The day of the attack, he wrote in in a hate-filled internet post: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Bowers and others on the right cultivate a sense of their own victimhood with Jews as the oppressors. It’s easier to blame the Jews for their grievances than to take responsibility for building a better life.

But antisemitism does not live only among Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other dangerous right wing hate groups who nurse their own sense of resentment and victimhood.  It is just as pernicious on the left.

There is a growing sense of a culture of victimhood and resentment that animates groups who claim historical discrimination and marginalization. Both Jewish and black Americans suffered discrimination and hatred. In response, Jews embraced liberal values that called not simply for Jewish liberation but equal rights for everyone, regardless of gender, race, country of origin, or religion. It is no accident that Jews were at the forefront of the fight for civil rights in America.  Among the founders of the NAACP were Henry Moscowitz and Joel and Arthur Springarn. It was Rabbi Dick Hirsch that gave Martin Luther King his first office in Washington at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

But at the same time Jews enjoyed certain privilege that Black Americans did not. Jews, for example, could use the benefits of the GI bill to reap the advantages of a college education while Black GI’s were constrained by being denied admission to most colleges and universities.  As Jews advanced in professional accomplishments and grew more wealthy and powerful, Jews came to be seen as part of the power structure that contributed to a system of racial prejudice and oppression.

In this environment grew the stereotypes of Jewish wealth and conspiracy theories of Jewish power. And into this environment came the resentment of Jewish power not only in America, but in Israel as well.

Despite the precarious circumstance of Israel’s birth, and the persistent threat of violence and war, Israel has grown to be an extraordinarily prosperous and powerful nation. The prism of victimhood sees the power of Israel’s military and the weakness of the Palestinians and automatically confers on the Palestinians the moral purity of the victim without ever asking what responsibility they bear for their own plight.  The natural right of Jews to self-determination in our ancient homeland is instead recast as an illegitimate white colonialist enterprise that supplanted and oppressed the rightful indigenous people.

Criticism of Israel’s policies has morphed into full-blown antisemitism. In the name of progressive rights for the oppressed, Israel is singled out as the only nation in the world whose right to exist is called into question. Bari Weiss in her recent book How To Fight Anti-Semitism notes that Anti-Zionists will say they care about religious minorities, but are curiously silent about the treatment of Uighurs in China, the Rohingya in Myanmar or the forced modern exodus of Christians from the Middle East.[4]  They will say they care about the rights of indigenous people to self-determination but ignore the plight of nearly 30 million Kurdish people scattered in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria who have no country of their own.  And of course, there is no discussion of the continued violence perpetrated against Israel by terrorist groups like Hamas or Hizbullah, or condemnation of Iran’s repeated promises to wipe Israel off the map.

Because Anti-Zionists conflate support for Israel with promoting injustice and oppression, Jews themselves must check their Judaism at the door or risk accusations of dual-loyalties. A UCLA student who applied to the student judicial board was asked at her confirmation interview if her affiliation with a Jewish sorority and Hillel would make her biased and unable to adjudicate student affairs.  At the University of Virginia, Jewish student activists were barred from admission in a minority student coalition to fight white supremacy.[5] Last year, two professors at the University of Michigan professor refused to write letters of recommendation for students applying for study programs in Israel.[6]

Alan Johnson wrote in Fathom Journal: “Antisemitic anti-Zionism bends the meaning of Israel and Zionism out of shape until both become fit receptacles for the tropes, images and ideas of classical antisemitism. In short, that which the demonological Jew once was, demonological Israel now is: uniquely malevolent, full of blood lust, all-controlling, the hidden hand, tricksy, always acting in bad faith, the obstacle to a better, purer, more spiritual world, uniquely deserving of punishment.”[7]

To me, there is no question that people who have suffered displacement, persecution, and discrimination deserve to be outraged, but is resentment the solution? We who have suffered from denigration, hatred, and violence can spend our lifetimes assigning blame for our plight, but what does it get us?

Those who feel left behind by the transformations in the global economy or who feel threatened by the changes in American culture can blame the elites in New York and California or blame immigrants coming from Latin America, but their resentment won’t change their lives for the better.

Those who feel victimized and marginalized by a system built on racism and misogyny can blame the white power structure, or take umbrage at cultural appropriation and micro-aggressions, but stifling rational discourse and freedom of speech won’t make the difference we need.

And for us as Jews, nursing our resentments isn’t the right path either. Certainly we must take antisemitism seriously. We must call out bigotry on the right and say with full voice this cannot stand.  We must call out intolerance on the left and say with full voice that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.

But if we truly want to advance the cause of justice and the eradication of prejudice then we need more than righteous indignation.  Instead, we simply need righteousness.

Righteousness demands that we be truly honest with ourselves and recognize the privileges we enjoy as Jews in America. Righteousness also demands that we work for justice to ensure that marginalized groups are given fair access to opportunities to learn and grow and prosper. Righteousness demands that we not simply fight antisemitism, but all the other “isms” that denigrate, objectify, and oppress.

Righteousness demands that we support law enforcement and honor those who work to keep us safe. Righteousness also demands that we examine our biases and prejudices and insist that we police with fairness, kindness, compassion and restraint.

Righteousness demands that we that we reject chauvinism and xenophobia and work to ease the way of the stranger.  Righteousness also demands that we grow more sensitive to how a changing world impacts those who feel shunted aside though they tried to be honest, and loyal, and play by the rules.

Righteousness demands that we support, protect, and defend the State of Israel and work to promote her security and prosperity. Righteousness also demands that we implore Israel’s leaders to work for the values and principles of equality, fairness, and inclusion for all its inhabitants on which the State itself was founded.

We cannot become trapped in a vortex of victimhood, resentment, and blame. We must instead take Extreme Ownership for the future we want to create.

Let the sounding of the shofar drown out the voices of hate, and call us to renounce a culture of victimhood, resentment and blame. Let the shofar instead call us to righteousness, to come together to take responsibility for what our world has become, and make it our individual and collective mission to remedy injustice, fight intolerance, and eradicate hatred. This is how we must live. This is how we must lead.  This is the fight we must win.

[1] Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5

[2] Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, pp. 9-10.

[3] Deborah Lipstadt in conversation with Yehuda Kurtzer. Shalom Hartman Institute Jerusalem – July 8, 2019

[4] Bari Weiss, How To Fight Anti-Semitism. New York: Crown, 2019, pp. 108-109

[5] Ibid, p. 88.

[6] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/10/10/second-professor-university-michigan-declines-write-recommendation-letter-student

[7] http://fathomjournal.org/the-left-and-the-jews-time-for-a-rethink/

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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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