High Holy Day Sermons 5775

Yom Kippur Morning

NOTE: I am indebted to my colleague, Rabbi Rick Block, whose “fundamental facts” about Israel, Hamas and the New Middle East, offered in his Rosh Hashanah sermon at The Temple in Cleveland, OH, form the basis for the first part of this sermon.


My colleague and friend, Rabbi Rick Block, Senior Rabbi of The Temple in Cleveland, Ohio, a past-president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and the current President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, tells the following story: 

A visitor to Jerusalem’s Biblical Zoo noticed that each enclosure bore a sign with a pertinent biblical quotation. One quoted Isaiah, “[T]he wolf and the lamb shall dwell together.” Across the moat separating the animals from visitors, he saw that a wolf and a lamb were, indeed, resting peaceably, side by side. Amazed, he sought out the zookeeper and asked how that was possible. “It’s simple,” the zookeeper replied. “Every day we put in a new lamb.”

“This story,” according to Rabbi Block, “captures the yawning chasm between the ideal world our tradition commands us to seek and the real world we inhabit. This summer,” he writes, “that chasm seemed wider than ever, as Israel found its cities and citizens under relentless, indiscriminate bombardment and terrorists swarmed through tunnels to kill and kidnap. Hamas’ instigation of hostilities and its refusal to accept or honor a series of ceasefires, compelled Israel to defend herself, with the awful consequences that war always brings.”

Rabbi Block goes on to state some fundamental facts about the conflict and discuss their implications.  First he offers some fundamental facts about Israel:

One: Israel is deeply invested in peace and wants a better life for all. Having known little but war since it was born in 1948, no country yearns for peace more passionately than Israel. That is why Israel gave up the entire Sinai for peace with Egypt, made peace with Jordan, left Lebanon, left all of Gaza, and offered 97% of the West Bank for a Palestinian state. Israel seeks only to live within secure and recognized borders, in mutual recognition and respect with its neighbors, its children free from fear and violence, their future defined by peace rather than devastated by war. It wants the same for Palestinians and their children. So do we, as do all decent people.

Two: Israel has the right to exist. (Why should we even have to say this?) What other nation is asked continually to justify its existence? It is an obscenity. But make no mistake, Israel’s conflict with Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and other Islamic extremists is not about its borders or settlement policy or anything Israel does or doesn’t do. The conflict exists because the Jewish State exists. As Hamas puts it in its charter, ‘Islam will obliterate [Israel] just as it obliterated others before it.’

So, for the record, says Rabbi Block, Israel is the Jewish People’s ancient, present, and eternal homeland. It is so by Divine promise and irrevocable covenant, by millennia of prayers and dreams, backbreaking labor, survival and sacrifice, by history and destiny, lawful decree and the rightful exercise of self-defense. No amount of ideological fanaticism, polemical propaganda, pathological hatred, terrorist violence or historical revisionism can make it otherwise. In a world with 57 Islamic states and 20 officially Christian, there is but one Jewish state, and it’s here to stay.

Three: Like every nation, Israel has the right and duty to defend itself and its citizens. Interviewed on a German radio station during the recent conflict, Amos Oz, renowned Israeli author and peace activist, began by presenting two questions to listeners. ‘What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery? And what would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or…kidnap your family?’ The answers are self-evident.

Four: National self-defense presents complex moral and tactical challenges; perfection is unattainable. Do you put civilians at risk or allow terrorists to act with impunity? It is an awful, but unavoidable choice. Natan Sharansky observed, ‘Before the IDF bombs an area in Gaza, residents are alerted by radio, e-mail, phone and text message telling them to leave. The army also uses small warning missiles to let civilians know a real missile will soon be fired. Do other free countries go to similar lengths?’ We all know the answer. Golda Meir reminded us, during her years of leadership, that it would be suicidal to trade the moral challenges of power for the moral purity of powerlessness.

Next, Rabbi Block offered some fundamental facts about Hamas:

One: Its indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilians and its use of civilians as shields were war crimes. The rules of war require combatants to wear distinctive markings on their persons and vehicles and stay away from non-combatants. Otherwise, they bear responsibility for the ensuing casualties. While Israel employed rockets to protect civilians, Hamas used civilians to protect rockets. By firing from mosques, churches filled with refugees, schools, hospitals, and clinics, and by urging non-combatants to ignore Israel’s advance warnings, Hamas pursued a PR strategy that President Clinton called ‘crass,’ and ‘designed to force Israel to kill their…civilians so that the rest of the world will condemn them.’ Face the Nation’s Bob Schieffer quoted a second statement of Golda Meir. “We can forgive [them] for killing our children, but we can never forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.’

Two: Hamas’ PR strategy also involves deception, manipulation, and intimidation of the news media. Threatened with death, journalists in Gaza were afraid to report anything that departed from the Hamas narrative, which dictated that all Palestinian casualties be reported as ‘civilians’ and blamed on Israel. As in prior conflicts, these will surely prove to be gross exaggerations or outright lies. The damage to Israel’s image, however, has been done.

Three: Hamas is profoundly anti-Semitic. From a prominent Hamas leader: ‘We all remember how the Jews used to slaughter Christians, in order to mix their blood in their holy matzos…It happened everywhere.’ From Amos Oz: ‘I read the charter of Hamas carefully. It says that the Prophet commands every Muslim to kill every Jew everywhere in the world. It quotes the [fictitious] Protocols of the Elders of Zion and says that the Jews controlled the world through the League of Nations and through the United Nations, that the Jews caused the two world wars and that the entire world is controlled by Jewish money…I have been a man of compromise all my life. But even a man of compromise cannot approach Hamas and say: ‘Maybe we meet halfway and Israel only exists on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.’’

Four: Hamas seeks to take over the West Bank as it did Gaza. Last month, it was revealed that Hamas was plotting to overthrow the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and carry out terrorist attacks on Israel from there. ‘If only the West Bank had one quarter of [the weapons Gaza has]’ a Hamas leader declared, ‘the Israeli entity would end in one day.’ Imagine the mortal danger Israel’s citizens would face if Hamas took over the West Bank, whether by force or by elections! Israel, the Palestinian Authority, much of the region, the US and the West share a strategic goal: preventing the West Bank’s Hamasification or Hezbollization.

Five: The Palestinians’ true enemy is not Israel; it is Hamas. By Hamas’ own estimate, more than 160 Palestinian children died constructing its tunnels. It also murdered workers to keep the project secret. PA President Abbas reported that Hamas executed 120 Palestinian teens for curfew violations and 30-40 alleged ‘collaborators,’ all without trial or due process. Billions of dollars of aid to Gaza that could have been used to build schools, hospitals, roads, and the infrastructure of a better life, were spent on tunnels and terror instead. Why? Because trying to kill Jews and destroy Israel is more important to Hamas than the lives of the Palestinian people.

And finally, Rabbi Block offered some fundamental facts about the region and the world:

One: There is a new Middle East. Israel’s war with Hamas was not just more of the same. This time, much of the Arab world, including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates supported Israel. They all face a common threat from radical Sunni Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, ISIS and Iran. Iran’s surreptitious, advanced nuclear weapons program remains the greatest single threat to Israel, the region, the US and the West. Israel is on the front line of this much wider and more lethal conflict. The new Middle East explodes the myth that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the region’s core problem. It is not and never has been. Though it needs to be solved, if possible, that would not end a clash of 1400 years duration within Muslim civilization, into whose vortex the world has now been drawn.

Two: The New Middle East requires new thinking. The radical transformation of the region since the “Arab Spring” demands deep reflection, wherever we may be on the political spectrum. For conservatives, a key takeaway, as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s conduct of the war recognized, is that military force, even when necessary, fully justified, and carefully employed, can only accomplish so much, and has geopolitical costs, not just human and financial ones, that must be taken into account. For liberals, the lesson is: get real. I quoted Amos Oz precisely because he is a prominent leftist and peace activist. I find it maddening that so much criticism of Israel from the left focuses obsessively on its flaws – real, exaggerated, and imagined – while ignoring or rationalizing the misdeeds and failures of others. Where are Israel’s high-minded detractors when 200,000 people, including 50,000 civilians, are slaughtered in Syria? Where is the Presbyterian Church (USA), which voted for divestment, when Christians in Iraq who won’t convert to Islam are decapitated? How, in good conscience, can those who call Israelis who defend themselves ‘war criminals’ and ‘baby killers,’ remain silent when Muslims ruthlessly rape, murder, kidnap, maim and drive out other Muslim and Christian men, women and children?

In a recent column in Haaretz, Israel’s left-leaning newspaper, Ari Shavit, author of the acclaimed book My Promised Land, offered a compelling explanation. He wrote, ‘It is difficult for the Western liberal to observe the new Middle East. His worldview is based on criticizing the West and granting sweeping amnesty to those who are seen as its victims…So he demonstrated against the war in Vietnam, but kept silent in the face of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. He opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but kept silent in the face of oppression in Iran. This is why he hastens to denounce Israel, while displaying leniency toward Hamas’ fanaticism…The new Middle East is now raising penetrating questions that must generate an upheaval in liberal thought. Liberals can no longer ignore the awful plague of Middle Eastern brutality and the fact that millions of Arabs live with no rights and no future. While voicing justified criticism against Israel…they must lift their eyes and see the expanse in which Israel is located. An expanse in which Yazidis are massacred and Christians are persecuted and women are stoned. An expanse in which there is no democracy, or peace, or grace. This is a Middle East that liberals must see as it is—and deal with courageously.’

Three: Anti-Semitism and hostility to Israel are closely connected. Anti-Semitism is embedded in ‘the BDS Movement,’ which demonizes Israel, calling for boycotts, disinvestment, and sanctions. In essence, BDS is the third phase of the seven decade long war against Israel. The first, as former Ambassador Michael Oren points out, from 1948-73, was ‘the attempt to annihilate Israel by conventional means.’ The second ‘sought to cripple Israel through terror.’ The current, BDS phase seeks ‘to isolate, delegitimize and sanction Israel into extinction. And a key weapon…is the hugely destructive word ‘apartheid.’’

Four: Israel is not, and will never be, an apartheid state. In South Africa, apartheid imposed total segregation between whites and blacks by law, akin to the Jim Crow period in the American South. In Israel, no such laws have ever existed. Arabs vote, attend university, serve in the Knesset and on the Supreme Court, some even in the army. All over Israel, Jews and Arabs mix freely. Go to any mall, park, or hospital; you will see it is so. Arab Israelis have rights, protections, and opportunities unheard of in the Arab world. And the security barrier, vilified as an ‘apartheid wall,’ was not erected to segregate Palestinians, but to save Israeli lives, Jews and Arabs alike, from suicide bombers. Branding Israel an apartheid state is a monumental, malicious lie. It does nothing to bring about Palestinian statehood and does ‘a grave injustice to the millions of South African and American blacks who were the victims of true apartheid.’

And what about the response of the American Jewish community? Rabbi Block observes that “there are some who share the anti-Western critique and they are among Israel’s most strident critics. Driven by ideology, their minds are closed. They represent a tiny fringe, far outside the mainstream. A larger number of American Jews have yet to do the rethinking that the new Middle East requires and have been influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the fictitious narrative of Israeli oppression and Palestinian victimization. And a third group, partially overlapping the second, and perhaps the majority, are disappointed that Israel doesn’t live up to everything they imagined a Jewish State would be.”

“The bottom line,” says Rabbi Block, “We must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We must be realistic and vigilant, yet also hopeful and optimistic. Realistically, bias, unfair criticism, myths, anti-Semitism and conflict will persist, just as bacteria thrive despite antibiotics. It’s sometimes said that optimists believe this is the best of all possible worlds and pessimists are afraid they’re right. Jewish optimism is different; it accepts reality, but refuses to be defined or defeated by it.”

Those of us who are true “ohavey tzion—lovers of Zion”, sometimes forget why it is that we love the Land, and feel an abiding connection to it, amid all of the talk and concern about security and politics.  So I want leave the issues of war and peace for a moment, and take just a few more minutes to explore the holiness of the Land of Israel—to see if we cannot reconnect to Eretz Yisrael in this way, and remember what it is that has kept her so close to the hearts of Jews throughout our history.


            “All the earth is holy–but holier still is the Land of Israel”


This statement from the Midrash represents in a nutshell, both the emotional and the theological response of the Jewish People to The Land. It is the place from which we begin to examine the holiness of the Land of Israel.


Kedushah—holiness—is that quality which is unique to God, but which emanates from God to infuse various elements of our world: objects, time and space.


Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, adonai tzevaot, M’lo chol ha-aretz k’vodo—Holy, Holy is Adonai Tzevaot. The fullness of all the earth is God’s glory.”


What does this mean, and how do we apply it to The Land?

Holiness is the Divine emanation that separates elements of our world from others of their kind, enabling them to become vehicles for the manifestation of God’s Presence.  Thus, a simple cupboard—aron in Hebrew—becomes an aron ha-kodesh—a holy ark—in clear distinction to all other cupboards. And once a week, every week, we designate an entire day of holiness—Shabbat—marking it off as distinct and separate from all of the other days.

The opposite of “holiness” is not “unholiness”, but rather “ordinariness—in Hebrew, chol“. And what makes ordinary things ordinary is that God’s Presence is not manifest in them. It is only through vehicles of manifestation of God’s Presence that we can have the direct experience of kedushah, or holiness.


How then, can we understand kedushat ha-aretz—the holiness of The Land?

The poet, Danny Siegel, writes:


Blessed be Your Negev,

For it shall bring forth sesame and apples.

Blessed be Your Galilee,

For it shall be a rest for Exiles coming home.

Blessed be the rocks, the buses,

The grocery stores and balconies,

For they are holy, too;

The parrot in Eilat quotes the Prophets,

And the grinding of the gears are melodies

To Your discerning listeners.


O my God,

I could list forever

All the sacred things of Israel:

The jets with their Star of David wings,

The pomegranates and sunflowers,

The accents of a thousand lands,

The beards, gold-domed vistas,

The way the people carry their freedom,

The history in the air,

The wisdom in the streets,

The fishponds and alfalfa fields,

The awesomeness of Hebrew.


Glorified, magnified,

Sanctified and praised be You

For all these wonders.

                        – Danny Siegel


God’s Presence is manifest for us in The Land because we are the current generation of the eternal People of Israel—Am Yisrael. And as God was manifest to our ancestors—to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and Rachel—to Moses and Miriam and Deborah and Solomon and Amos and Micah and Isaiah—in the Land of Israel, by definition and by affirmation, God is manifest to us in The Land.


The Land of Israel is a part of the Covenant promise that defines the Jewish People. And the presence of Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael is a demonstration and a confirmation of the lasting validity and the eternal continuity of that Covenant promise.


“To the Rabbis, Israel was the center of the world, the highest land, the light of the world, the holiest of all countries, though they would not have called it merely a country…

…Nine-tenths of all the world’s wisdom is in Israel, they said. Nine tenths of all the world’s beauty is in Jerusalem. Rabbi Nathan said: There is no wisdom anywhere like that of Israel, nor any beauty like that of Jerusalem. In quantity and in quality, Israel was the fair genius of the earth.”

          Before Our Very Eyes, by Danny Siegel

                                        (Town House Press, 1986)


In my youth, I had the good fortune to know Clarence Eyfromson z”l, a philanthropist, a Zionist and a Jewish scholar who lived in Indianapolis. I would visit him in his home each summer when I went to work at the Reform Movement summer camp there.  Those were the years that I was in high school and college, and I would sit in his living room, chatting with him about Judaism and about Israel and about life. He was well into his 80’s in 1973 when the Yom Kippur war broke out. A true lover of Zion, he left the comfort and security of his home and boarded a plane to Israel. An ardent Labour Zionist, he went straight to the kibbutz that he had visited often throughout his life, and picked dates until long after the war came to an end. It was his way of marking the holiness of The Land and experiencing it all at the same time.


Ricki and I were in Israel in 1973 as well, though we didn’t see each other there.  And while many of our friends returned to America or left Israel for the safety of Greece or Cyprus, we remained in Israel, and like Clarence Eyfromson, we found work to do on kibbutzim to immerse ourselves in the Land. There are thousands of stories like ours…


“Who could think of leaving The Land? Even in times of distress and persecution, who would abandon Israel?” – ibid.


“We are told that Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua and Rabbi Yochanan the Sandal-maker were on their way to Netzivin in Babylonia to study Torah with Rabbi Yehudah ben Betayrah. Now, to leave The Land in order to study Torah with certain Masters was within the Law. And yet, when they reached the border, they looked back, tore their clothes, and began to weep. They wept deeply, and returned to The Land. They simply could not leave, no matter how good the reason.” – ibid.


My own Zionism is informed by my lifelong membership in the community of North American Reform Judaism, and is both a part and a product of the liberal Jewish theology that I embrace, and by which I try to live faithfully.



In 1997, the Central Conference of American Rabbis published its Miami Platform, “Reform Judaism and Zionism”.  In this historic document, the Reform Movement affirms that “the restoration of Am Yisrael to its ancestral homeland after nearly two thousand years of statelessness and powerlessness represents an historic triumph of the Jewish people,” and a realization of the ancient covenant promise…a necessary condition for the realization of the physical and spiritual redemption of the Jewish people and of all humanity.


This articulation of Reform Religious Zionism teaches us that the holiness of The Land must, in the end, be a reflection of the holiness of God.


To affirm the holiness of The Land, we must ensure that Israel be an exemplar of righteousness and ethical behavior, a sacred place for study, prayer and spiritual renewal.  And we must ensure that Israel is at the forefront of tikkun olam, the redemption of Am Yisrael and humankind, and the fulfillment of the Messianic vision.  And so we have a stake in working for social and religious equality in Israel, and peace for Israel and her neighbors.

The Talmud teaches that “Rabbi Chanina would remove rocks from the roads and take care of anything that might cause unkind words to be spoken of The Land. It must be a pleasant place to live, he insisted.” – ibid.


And so we have a stake in ensuring that Israel will be a pleasant place to live.  We can do this, not just through financial contributions, although they are important, but through a system in which YOU can influence political policy and social change in Israel, in the same way that you can do it here in America, with your vote.  This is done through the World Zionist Organization. Often called “the parliament of the Jewish people,” the WZO was convened in 1897 by Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism.


My daughter, Rabbi Emma Gottlieb, describes the World Zionist Organization in more detail:


At it’s inception the goal of the WZO was to unite the Jewish people and to bring about the establishment of the Jewish state. Today, it continues to try to unite the Jewish people and to support the now-established State of Israel.


The WZO is a global organization. International political parties, representing different groups of Jews around the world, compete in elections every five years to determine their number of delegates within the WZO. In addition, Jewish organizations like Hadassah, B’nai Brith [and the World Union for Progressive Judaism] have fixed representation, and Israel’s political parties are represented based on the number of seats they have in the Knesset.


Reform Jews are represented in the WZO by the international party called Arzenu, which means “Our Land”.  Arzenu’s mission is, “to imbue all Reform Jews with a common vision of Jewish peoplehood” and, “to see…Israel as the Jewish, democratic state inspired by Reform (and) Progressive values.”


For Reform Zionists like me, voting for Arzenu in the WZO election is the best way to ensure that those who share our values have a seat at the table where pressing matters about Israel are discussed, and have the ability to influence the decisions made there, which directly impact Israeli policy.


Often, we end discussions about Israel with the question, “What can we do?” How can we ensure that Israel is a place that reflects not just our history and heritage but our values as well?


Voting in the WZO election is one answer. If you’d like to know how to register to vote in the upcoming election, please refer to the postcards that were distributed with your machzorim when you entered the bet tefillah this morning. There are more of them out in the lobby as well.


In less than three weeks from now, a small group of travelers, most of them from Beth Israel Judea, will stand on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem, God’s holy city.  We will gaze down upon the ancient city, the Temple Mount, its synagogues and its mosques shining like jewels on a royal crown.  (There is still time if you’d like to join us…) Pouring out cups of wine, preparing to sing God’s praises, we will speak these words:

“We turn to You, O God, in thanksgiving for the privilege of arriving in the land of our ancestors.  May our visit in Israel deepen our understanding of our Jewish identity and may it inspire us to work for the well being of all Jews in Israel and throughout the world.  We look forward with deep joy and anticipation to the experiences which now await us.”


And then we will sing shehechiyanu:

Praised are You, Adonai our God, Guiding Spirit of the Universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this sacred moment in time.


Ken Yihi Ratzon