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Israel (RH2 5777)

I love Israel! And I hope that you do too!! Because I love Israel, I am a Zionist; and I hope that you are too!!! Being a Zionist does not mean that I plan to go live in Israel. Being a Zionist means that I care about Israel and support Israel and her aspiration to be a free and independent Jewish nation amongst the nations of the world.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, the Movement that trained and ordained me, envisioned the Jewish world as a bicycle wheel; with Israel at the hub and each spoke reaching out to a different Diaspora community. One spoke lead here to America, another to Canada, a third to Argentina, a fourth to England, a spoke to Germany, to Poland, to Russia, South Africa, to Singapore and to Australia; to every county where Jews resided. Influence would flow back and forth along the spokes with Israel influencing the world Jewish community and the communities of the world influencing Israel. The former has definitely taken place; sadly the latter has not to any significant degree.

Our attitudes are formed by our experiences and that is particularly true of our feelings about Israel. Few things in Jewish life are so generationally based. For those of you in this room who remember a time when there was no State of Israel, when Jews had nowhere to go during the Holocaust, the birth of the Jewish State was a miracle to be cherished. For those of us who grew up with the pride of victory after victory by this small fledgling nation taking on the entire Arab world that hated us and sought to exterminate us; we developed a love of Israel that showed us and the world that the Jewish people could stand on their own two feet and defend ourselves, that we need not be subservient or dependent upon others. But for Millennials, they have grown up in a world where Israel is a military power portrayed in the media has the hostile aggressor against a beleaguered Palestinian people; so for the younger generation love of Israel does not come as naturally or as easily as it does for their parents and grandparents. That is why we send our children on USY Israel Pilgrimage and Ramah Seminar, on the March of the Living and on Birthright; so that they can experience Israel first hand and develop the love of the Jewish homeland that for the rest of us is so natural.

Last month I attended my first AIPAC event, AIPAC is the American-Israel Political Action Committee, some consider them to be mainstream and others see them as right wing in the Israel camp. But without question they are a group of committed Zionists who love Israel and fight to protect her. The AIPAC policy conference each spring in Washington DC has become the biggest annual Jewish event in the country. It attacks more than 15,000 Israel supporters. I was at the AIPAC Rabbinic Symposium that is a one day gathering before the High Holy Days. There were over 300 rabbis present from Renewal rabbis to Chabad rabbis. The gathering was impressive and the sessions were interesting, perhaps this is the year to attend my first Policy Conference where I’m told there are even more rabbis.

AIPAC was formed in the 1950 when the Eisenhower administration was pro-Arab and not enamored of Israel or American Zionists and so an independent lobbying group was formed and became AIPAC. At the same time the American Jewish community was so disorganized that the administration brought all the leaders together at one time to talk to them and thus was born the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. (The Other Arab-Israeli Conflict by Steven Spiegel, pp. 50-61)

Just as there are rabbis all over the spectrum on Israel; so to Israel itself has been a strange dichotomy of dreamers and pragmatists. The pragmatists like Moshe Dayan, Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon and even Benjamin Netanyahu do what they think necessary to insure the safety and the survival of the Jewish State; the dreamers like Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, who said, “Im tirzu anyzo agada, If you will it, it is no dream.” He dreamed of a Jewish nation long before it came to be; Yitzchak Rabin, who dreamed of peace and gave his life for the cause; and Shimon Peres z”l, who also dreamed of peace, but did not live to see it become a reality, said in his farewell address to Congress in 2014, “Looking back on the life of Israel, our dreams proved not to be too big but too small, because Israel achieved much more than I could have ever imagined... I ask only one thing of the United States of America, this mighty nation of dreamers: Don’t dream small. You are great. So dream big.”

President Obama pointed out that Shimon Peres chose hope over fear in spite of everything he saw in his life, the Holocaust, the birth of his nation and years of conflict with the Arab nations surrounding Israel. This is what we need on Rosh Hashanah, we need to be filled with hope for the New Year, we need to overcome our fears and trepidation in order to be willing to experiment and try new things, to change and grow.
We need to stand up and be counted, we need to defend the Jewish State and we need to defend the Jewish people the world over. You don’t have to be a great and powerful person to do this. There is a passage in the Talmud where God condemns the Jewish people and then seeks someone to defend them, but it is the most unlikely of heroes that steps up to defend us.

R. Samuel b. Nachmani said in R. Jonathan's name: What is meant by the quote, “For you are our father, though Abraham knows it not, and Israel does not acknowledge us; you, O Lord, are our father; our redeemer from everlasting is your name.” In the future the Holy One, blessed be God, will say to Abraham: ‘”Your children have sinned against Me.”’ Abraham shall answer God, ‘”Sovereign of the Universe! Let them be wiped out for the sanctification of Your Name.”’ Then shall God say, ”I will say to Jacob, who experienced the pain of bringing up children; perhaps he will supplicate mercy for them.” ‘So God will say to Jacob, ”Your children have sinned.”’ Jacob [too] shall answer God, ‘”Sovereign of the Universe! Let them be wiped out for the sanctification of Your Name.”’ God shall retort, ”There is no reason in old men, and no counsel in children!”’

Then finally shall God say to Isaac the ever overlook patriarch, ”Your children have sinned against me.”’ But Isaac shall answer God, ”Sovereign of the Universe! Are they my children and not also Your children? When they gave precedence [at Sinai] saying "we will do" over "we will hearken" before You, You called them, Israel my firstborn. Now they are my children, not Your children?!

Moreover, how much have they sinned? How many are the years of a person? Seventy, . Subtract twenty, for which You do not punish, [and] there remain fifty years. Subtract twenty-five years which comprise the nights, [and] there remain twenty-five years. Subtract twelve and a half years devoted to praying, eating, and Nature's calls, [and] there remain twelve and a half years of life. If You will bear all, this is well and good; if not, let half be upon me and half upon You. And should You say, they must all be upon me, lo! I offered myself up before You [as a sacrifice]!”’

[Thereupon] they shall commence and say, ‘For you [i.e., Isaac] are our father.’ Then shall Isaac say to them, “Instead of praising me, praise the Holy One, blessed be He,” and Isaac shall show them the Holy One, blessed be He, with their own eyes. Immediately they shall lift up their eyes on high and exclaim, ‘You, O Lord, are our father; our redeemer from everlasting is your name.’[BT Shabbat 89B]

We expect Abraham who argues on behalf of the sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah to defend us, but he does not. Even God ignores Isaac, going next to Jacob, the negotiator, to defend us, but he does not. Meek, quiet Isaac defends us against God – he begins by pointing to God that they are not just his children, but we are all God’s children. Then he reminds God that at Sinai, when asked if we will accept the Torah, we respond with Na’ase v’nishma, we will do and we will listen; committing ourselves to action without knowing what it was that God would ask of us. Then you were happy with us, now you reject us?

Then he argues as did his father, Abraham, at Sodom and Gomorrah. How long does a person live? According to one tradition 70 years! Then Isaac points out that God didn’t punish those under the age of 20 for the sin of the spies when the Israelites were condemned to die in the desert, so for 20 years we get a free pass, now we are down to 50 years. We sleep at night and so can’t be sinning 50% of the time. Of the 25 years left in play, half is spent studying, praying, eating and in the bathroom. So we are left with 12.5 years we could be sinning. He then asks God can’t you take on the burden of 12.5 years of sinning? And he goes on saying, if You can’t, then how about we split them between us since we are both fathers of the Israelites. And finally, if you won’t take on any of it, then I’ll take it all on me; and I can do that because I’ve already offered myself up to you as a sacrifice in the Akedah which we read as our Torah reading this morning. It is Isaac who steps up and defends us. Isaac who is a redemptive character; help and support often come from the most unexpected of places.

Another redemptive character who defended Israel was late Elie Wiesel. But Wiesel, whose death is another great loss for the Jewish people and the world this year, not only defended Israel, but the downtrodden and the victimized of the world. He spoke out for Soviet Jewry, for Kurds, for victims of genocide in Sudan, against apartheid in South Africa; he spoke out for the Bosnians when they were being slaughtered by the Serbs, for Cambodian Boat People, for oppressed Native Americans in Central and South America; and even for the Palestinians.

A man who after suffering at the hands of the Nazis had every right to be bitter and angry, instead became a moral voice for the world. He wrote and he spoke telling his story; he was a living legacy of man’s ability to fight for what’s right in the face of terrible inhumanity. Wiesel was the one who opened the floodgates on telling Holocaust stories, before he wrote Night, survivors did not talk about the horrors that they experienced. It was he who stood up and became a witness to the world. It was he who transformed the generation of survivors and allowed many of us the gift of firsthand accounts. Stories that have transformed our lives.

We need public figures like Elie Wiesel, but we also need those who quietly make a difference behind the scenes as exemplified by the story of Yossele the Holy Miser. This is a story famously told by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.

Yossele, was known to be the richest man in Krakow, but he was considered a stingy, mean miser. Everyone was sure that he shared his wealth with no one, never gave to anyone – ever. Everyone in the ghetto where he lived knew how much he had and how he hoarded it, and everyone judged him for not doing something to help the suffering and needy. But he never made public donations...

They thought he was hard-hearted, and they hated him for it. They talked about him and his stinginess and prayed that God, blessed be the Name, would remember his meanness. The children feared him and threw stones at him when he walked in the street. Yossele, like everyone else, eventually got old and sick. The word spread that he was finally nearing the end. Before he died the community burial society went to him and asked for a gift of a thousand rubles for the poor. He turned his head to the wall, refusing even to speak with them. So they left him and he died alone.

When the miser died, the townspeople who long despised him refused to bury his body for several days. Out of scorn, they eventually buried him in the back of the cemetery, in an area reserved for paupers and social outcasts. A fitting end, they thought, for a man who had not recognized the poor while he lived.

But Within a week of the misers death disturbing changes began to surface. Just before the Sabbath, the community leaders started approaching the rabbi for money to be given to poor women and children and old people. He gave them what he could, when he could. But he asked them, “What did you do before? Why are you asking me now? You never did previously.” The rabbi began making inquiries. To his horror he found that every week before the Sabbath, Yossele had been secretly giving to the poor so that they did not have to beg. And he had given so that no one, not even those who received his generosity, would know.

The rabbi was distressed. Yossele had been the holiest of them all and they had buried him like a pauper. They had treated him so vilely – doing to him what they had accused him of, blaming him for what really was their own shallow judgment and smallness of mind and heart. The rabbi gathered the whole community at his grave and decreed that they would fast and do penance for what they had done to Yossele while he was alive and for how they had dishonored him in death. They must ask Yossele to forgive them and their mean-spiritedness, and they must ask for some sign that they were forgiven. They all set to it with fervor.

After fasting for some time, the rabbi fell into a trance. And behold, in a vision he saw Yossele in the Garden of Eden surrounded by the righteous. Yossele told him, “Tell the people to stop fasting and doing penance and to go home and live with each other. I have forgiven them. I forgave them every day for what they did and what they thought of me. You see, long ago I asked God, blessed be His Name, for a favor. I wanted the honor and the privilege of giving to others the way God gives to us, without anyone’s knowledge and without requiring anyone’s thanks. I wanted them to be so thankful that they in turn would give out of their bounty to others in need.” The rabbi was stunned. When he told the people what he had seen and heard they were speechless. And on the tombstone which read “Yossele the Miser,” the rabbi added the word “HaTzadik” The Righteous One.

According to legend the rabbi involved was the famous sage Yom Tov Lipmann Heller, who requested to be buried next to the Holy Miser. This is the reason that the famed rabbi is buried at the back of the Remuh Cemetery in Krakow, next to Yossele.

As an addendum to the story, Rabbi Dovid Schochet was giving a lecture in Buffalo, NY and he told this story as a part of his talk. After the talk a priest came to see him and told him the following story.

In his early adulthood, his mother died. At her deathbed, she disclosed that secretly she was Jewish, recited the Shema and then told him the above story and that his great-grandfather was Yossele buried next to the great rabbi. At the time the priest imagined his mother was delirious, but after hearing the rabbi’s lecture, he realized that it must be true.

Several years later Rabbi Schochet was in Jerusalem at the Kotel when he was approached by a bearded religious Jew, who turned out to be the former priest. And he said to him, “A Jew is never completely lost from his people. (As told by Chana Weisberg in Jewish Stories from Heaven and Earth ed. by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, pp. 68-69)

We are a people of the miraculous, the fact that we still exist is miraculous. The fact that Israel exists is miraculous. Let me conclude with words from President Obama’s eulogy of Shimon Peres.

“The last of the founding generation is now gone. Shimon accomplished enough things in his life for a thousand men. But he understood that it is better to live to the very end of his time on Earth with a longing not for the past but for the dreams that have not yet come true — an Israel that is secure in a just and lasting peace with its neighbors. And so now this work is... in the hands of Israel’s next generation and its friends.

Like Joshua, we feel the weight of responsibility that Shimon seemed to wear so lightly. But we draw strength from his example and the fact that he believed in us — even when we doubted ourselves.

Scripture tells us that before his death, Moses said, “I call upon heaven and earth to bear witness this day that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.”

Uvacharta Bachayim. Choose life. For Shimon, let us choose life, as he always did. Let us make his work our own. May God bless his memory. And may God bless this country, and this world, that he loved so dearly.”

Thu, December 5 2019 7 Kislev 5780