Yom Kippur 5784 Sermon
By Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman
I remember the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as a 9th grader
at our New England Young Judaea Fall convention, 120 high schoolers
Gathered for the Saturday evening program: WHAT IF…?
It was a couple of weeks after the out break of the YK war in 1973,
And we, committed Zionist teens were taking part in a programmatic socio-drama that hit way too close to reality: How do we survive If Israel doesn’t?
I sometimes have that same feeling today, just for a very different set of circumstances.
50 years ago, when an Arab coalition of Syrian & Egyptian forces launched what seemed a surprise attack against Israel on the holiest day of our calendar, YK ’73,
Overtaking the Golan Heights up north and surging into the Sinai down south,
Things did not look good…The euphoria of the Six-Day War victory just 6 years before
Gave way to a panic that gripped the nation.
With Israel’s 180 tanks facing the onslaught of 1400 from Syria,
And 500 Israeli troops readying for some 500,000 Egyptian in route.
And though reservists would come to the rescue over the next couple of days,
Pushing back the threat in the Golan—actually opening up a road direct to Damascus,
And in the fiercest of tank battles,
after Israel destroyed 250 Egyptian tanks on the very first day, General Ariel Sharon surrounded Egypt’s Third Army as Israeli paratroopers crossed the Suez Canal,
ready to march with little opposition to Cairo.
But make no mistake. By the time the U.N. Security Council
brokered a tenuous cease fire a few weeks in, there were no winners in this war.
2,700 Israeli soldiers had been killed.
Over 11,000 Egyptian & Syrian troops were dead.
And with a 6-month protracted disengagement,
Israel would lose its foothold in the Sinai, and though maintaining control in the Golan,
Israel would go on to lose much more:
On the surface, the self-assuredness its daily security requires.
But deeper, as when, with the public outcry and a commission established
in the war’s wake, [chaired by Shimon Agranat, President of Israel’s Supreme Court]
determined—with facts on the ground saying one thing, and the country’s leadership
failing to admit it, or act upon it responsibly, thus threatening the well-being of the state,
the powers in place had to change.
SO, in addition to IDF Intel heads stepping down, the 1974 Agranat commission report resulted in both Moshe Dayan and Golda’s resignations, shifting the center of political power from labor to Likud, left to right, giving rise to Likud’s first ever Israeli election victory.
50 years later and we’re still feeling the fallout from that historic failure.
What we face, after all, in Israel today is precipitated by a ‘lack of intelligence.’
Or, more accurately, by a failure of the party in power to act in accord with the facts on the ground in service of the greater good…Driven by its own hubris,
And the desire for perpetuating its hold on power, the radical judicial reforms it pushed through the Knesset are but the first of many meant not alone to diminish the nation’s democratic character, but to erode the foundations on which Israel rests.
Our LT Israel Adventure group got to Jerusalem in mid-February for a 10-day exploration,
A firsthand deep dive into the people and places, past and very much present,
that would help the 42 of us experience why this ancient land still speaks to us so powerfully, and with all its craziness, how it somehow remains Home…
…On our second night there, after spending Shabbat on a walking tour of the Old City,
Visiting the holy sites of the three major religions, we fast forwarded to the present.
I suggested to the few families who were walking with me to Ben Yehudah’s
Pedestrian mall to grab a shawarma or felafel that we make a stop along the way.
“You know, the President’s house is just a few blocks up the hill.
Who want to go to the Hafganah?”
“The demonstration for Democracy,” I explained.
“I thought Israel was a Democracy?” one of our BM kids questioned…
“Well, it’s a parliamentary process, where the majority of seats rules.
Back in late December, Netanyahu, who’d been teetering, created a coalition,
By combining his seats with a very right-leaning members, so the most extremist parties are now part of his team, sort of self-avowed Israeli Jewish supremacists!
Its crazy, but they want to take away the Supreme Court’s power…”
The BM Dad chimed in, “And its even worse in Israel than it is in America!”
As we walked up the hill I added, “Since there’s no Constitution to limit the power of government, the only check that keeps the balance is the Supreme Court!”
By now we could see the crowd of protestors gathering at the President’s house,
As they had been for the last month, shouting: “DEM-O-KRAT-IYA”
“Hey, I know what that means,” one of the other LT kids said smiling.
I thought to myself, “I only wish Israel’s Prime Minister did too.”
While some take the centrality of Israel to Jewish existence as a given,
Others today see their support of the Jewish state through the prism of political expediency, regarding it as conditional, if not highly questionable.
So, I think it’s wise to clarify. Being a Zionist, in favor of a Jewish State,
In no way means automatic support for the controlling party in the Knesset
Any more than being a patriot means unequivocal support for America’s sitting President.
On the contrary. Being a Zionist requires our ongoing questioning,
Striving for an Israel that is a living testament to its timeless values.
But wait a minute Rabbi: WHY do you keep calling me a ZIONIST?
I’m glad you asked!!...For IF you are Jewish, or consider yourself connected
to this Covenant Community IF you see yourself as part of this peoplehood,
Sharing in the collective project of building a more purposeful tomorrow,
Guided by the values of justice & right, then you are de-facto, on Team Zion today!
NO, you don’t have to make Aliyah, or love felafel [though what’s not to like!]
You don’t have to identify key locations on a map of Israel.
BUT because the state of that place and the status of its promise
is intrinsic to our identity, the essential question becomes our quest:
WHAT must it mean to be the Zionist you are today?
I’d propose a three-tiered action plan: For EZ Recall, Team Zion’s 3 C’s!
Perceiving the disconnect with the current state of Israel for a majority of American Jews, most prevalent but not limited to younger generations,
Prof. Yehudah Kurtzer, President of the bridge-building, pluralistic, visionary
Hartmann Institute of N.A., identifies the impetus for innovation.
“I believe that our children have the capacity to understand more deeply the challenges that Israel faces, particularly those that emerge from the breach between
What Israel is and what it could be. Israel is great & broken in many ways. Gaps abound between Israel’s liberal democratic ideal and the present reality…To address these challenges is precisely the agenda of liberal Zionism, a continuation of the project of dreaming that formed the State of Israel to begin with.”
Our critique of the current moment must become a catalyst for change.
With a majority of Israel taking part in unprecedented mass protests,
Demonstrating against the Likud’s legislative proposals,
We dare not miss the window of opportunity…
Speaking to the Westchester Board of Rabbis in May, Kurtzer underscored
what this protest movement means for us all.
“We are not marching because we are anti-Israel. We are pro-Israel, the Declaration of Independence Israel of equal justice & the rights of all its citizens. We took back the flag, reclaiming the ideological passion for what the Blue & the White represents,
of all Israel is meant to be…”
A few months after the Declaration of Independence was read by Ben Gurion at the establishment of the state, in May of ’48, the secular, highly biblically literate founding father penned this entry in his diary on YK…
“As far as Western Democracy…I’m for Jewish Democracy.
“Western” just doesn’t suffice. Being a Jew is not simply a biological fact.
It is also a matter or morals and ethics. The value of life and human freedom are for us, more deeply embedded, thanks to the Prophets. I would like our future to be founded on Prophetic Ethics—Man created in the Image of God, Love your neighbor as yourself…These will foster a holy life.”
Our Exec Director Jane, who grew up on Kibbutz Kabri in the north, has taken a lead role, along with her husband Doron, in the Sunday protest marches in the city created by UnXeptable…With Israeli & American voices joining the chorus,
diverse as the demonstrations have been across the spectrum…
One chant rings true that echoes in rallies across the globe…
Without equality for all…We’ll make the government fall.
Our generation will not ignore the call…
Being a Zionist today means raising your voice to renew the vision of a more moral,
Jewishly just Israel for tomorrow…
It was hard not to notice that the first piece of the Netanyahu anti-judiciary proposal,
What will be a 5 part dismantling of the democratic system,
Was pushed through during the week of Tisha B’Av, the moment of historic mourning commemorating the destruction of the 1st & 2nd Temples of Jerusalem.
WHY was the sacred center of ancient Israel destroyed, resulting in the ensuing end of Israel’s self-rule? The Rabbis give one key reason: SINAT CHINAM—Baseless Hatred. leaders so at a loss as to how to be civil, a people so polarized, they sacrificed their shared destiny…
BUT, following the lead of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, whose courageous vision replanted Israel’s purpose post Temple-destruction, quoting Hosea to his followers,
We do have an antidote: “I desire CHESED—lovingkindness far beyond sacrifice.”
HOW can we respond to an Israeli administration that, in the words of Jerusalem Post Editor Avi Mayer, “callously ignores the pain of more than half its citizens
and dismisses the warning of its most dedicated soldiers?”
By reaching out to our Israeli sisters & brothers with lovingkindness,
Showing them we are there, that we care…
On a Zoom call a month ago with almost 100 Reform rabbinic colleagues on “The Meaning of Today’s Zionism,” following the formal teaching,
as many of my American Reform friends dropped off the call, came the best part—Breakout Groups with our colleagues in Israel.
Our group, just four of us and four of them, was a dialogue intimate as it was important.
I could feel the anguish in their faces…
Rinat, a Reform Rabbi in Shoham, spoke about how hard it was to have Ben-G’vir supporter cousins, [former settler/anti-Arab terrorist turned National Security Minister]
As she described, people she loved but could hardly talk to…
“It’s not just my family” she said… “This is tearing the family of Israel apart.”
[Sounds so America 2016! I’ve heard this story before!!]
After each rabbi spoke from the heart, I shared a teaching of Rabbi Michael Marmur,
HUC Prof of Theology, about the root of the word TIKVAH—Hope.
“The root could be KAV, Rope.
Which means that hope is something we try to hold onto that holds us all up.”
That’s when Rabbi Dahlia Shaham serving in Haifa added,
“Actually, Rabbi Marmur shared a second meaning.
He also taught that TIKVAH could come from MIKVAH, the ritual waters that through immersion, makes things pure again.” My Haifa colleague compassionately explained,
“When life gets you low, when it makes you feel tainted, the only thing to do is immerse yourself in the waters of hope…”
I couldn’t help but think, that small support group, the eight of us on screen,
Sharing open-yet-broken-hearted, were actually altogether in a mikvah,
Surrounded by the lifesaving waters of hope…
Being a Zionist today means responding with heart,
Feeling we are part of the greater Family of Israel,
Sharing in the pain/struggle that is not as far from home as we think…
For as we do, the care we share not only holds each other up,
But keeps hope afloat…
Our last Shabbat on this past February’s LT Israel adventure planted seeds of lasting connection with two people whose presence inspired in us Commitment.
Friday morning, before we did a mitzvah project packing food-boxes at the Jaffa Institute, we were greeted there by Gilad Kariv.
The fact that he took the time to meet with us is a miracle in/of itself.
Rabbi Kariv, formerly the head of IMPJ—the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism
Who was a lawyer before attending HUC, was, just a couple years ago elected to the Knesset, now serving as a leading voice in Labor [the opposition party].
A bit bleary-eyed and hoarse from a long Knesset shouting match the day before, Gilad spoke to our group for 45 minutes…Captivating us with his story of growing up a secular kid in Tel Aviv, finding the welcoming warmth of his Reform congregation and thereby finding himself…He spoke about how imperfect Israel was. How he’d be lying if he told us it was all “flowing with milk & honey.” He shared that the Netanyahu government intended not simply to dismantle the Supreme Court, but pushing for annexation, expanding settlements w/o a path to a two-state solution,
to transform the character of Israel into a religious state.
Eventually, Rabbi Kariv revealed why it was so important for him to meet with us:
“Zionism is the national democratic liberation movement of the Jewish people,
Not for some of us—but all of us, regardless of where we happen to live.
The sweetest dream of Smotrich & his ultra-nationalist, extremist friends
would be for you, progressive Jews in North America to walk away,
too fed up with Israel to stand it. But your being here tells me differently. You understand, we all have a part in this place, We are all connected to the good, the bad & the ugly…And from what I can see, you are here, and not going anywhere…”
Later that Friday evening the 40 of us went [along w/ a bunch of Reform rabbis in Israel for the CCAR] for Kabbalat Shabbat to Beit Samu-eli, the Reform Temple in Ra’anana…[Think Tel-Aviv-Larchmont]
After the heimish, spirited services led by Rabbi Chen Ben Or Ts’foni
our whole group was hosted by the congregation at a wonderful Shabbat Dinner.
Sitting next to Rabbi Chen, I heard her story of how she’d started out as a social-worker
Before beginning her rabbinic school journey, part of which she spent in HUC-NY as a rabbinic intern at BJ…She shared how she helped create a vibrant spiritual community,
[and I’d heard from others she was one a handful of reform rabbis renewing Reform in Israel]
Talking for almost an hour, just before hugging goodbye,
I asked what message I should take back to our community in the states.
She put her hand on my wrist as she spoke:
“Jeff. Tell them I’m afraid, for my family…Really afraid for Israel.
The future of what might be scares me. But knowing you are there makes me less afraid. We can’t go through this alone…”
With tears in my eyes, I walked back to our bus…Her voice echoing in my head.
I wrote down her words on the ride to the hotel…
But back at LT the next week, after exchanging quick notes of thanks,
life got busy…And Chen seemed a world away…What, after all, could I say?
On August 3rd, her email stirred me out of my silence…
We are here in the extreme summer. I assume you have heard how complex the situation is these days. The fear is tangible every day…The concern is personal for me, my family…and for equality, the liberal space in Israel. How will our voice be heard?
But the biggest concern is the feeling of alienation…and my hope that we can move forward together…You of all people know that Israel belongs to us all. I know the situation here reflects a weakening of democracy, a fundamentalism that is happening all over. Still, its not an easy picture, and our role as human beings, my rabbinic role, is challenging. Sometimes it makes it easier to handle just knowing you are there, albeit far away, but still caring, loving…Thanks for that!
My note back [penned with pangs of guilt] was immediate & emphatic:
We are here!!
My concern for the well-being of a democratic, humane and more sane Israel is a daily wish…We are with you, all 850 household of Larchmont Temple, heart to heart with you and so, somehow, side by side…My heart breaks that you must live out this struggle, see an administration including fundamentalists, and still hold the ideal of a greater Israel high as rabbi…When we sat at Shabbat dinner, and as you spoke at services that night, we could all hear your fear. But know this: You are not alone.
If there is a way forward, we are with you, and will find it together…
With abiding hope and much love,
Jeffrey [and LT too!]
And the very next day, I got the brief blessing of an email in response:
Thank you so much for the hope. Sometimes that is just what you need for the warmth to rise again. In the heat of August, we are constantly on the streets in protests.
We will not be silenced. It is not easy, but very strengthening.
Please thank the 800 households of LT too. Their support means so much to me,
And to our entire community…Big Hugs,
Being a Zionist today means being there…even if we are not,
Reaching out, connecting to let our Reform family in Israel know
we are still one extended family,
For fearful as the future might be,
Committed to the cause of justice,
Supporting the struggle for a society that celebrates difference for all its peoples,
Working together to renew the possibility of peace,
Refusing to let religious zealotry rule the day,
We can help to create an Israel humane as it is holy,
Jewishly democratic—a place we can all find a place…
Truly, a Promised Land….
So. This New Year, with HOPE ever sustaining and our commitment unwavering,
may it yet come to be…..AMEN