September 12, 2018

Sermon: Rosh Hashana 5779 (2018) – The Ever-Dividing Jewish People

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[Michelangelo – ‘Jeremiah’ – Sistine Chapel Ceiling (Rome)]

Let’s start with the haftarah for the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah, a series of pronouncements about the future delivered by the prophet Jeremiah. Born in Anatot, a small town in the territory of Benjamin, near the border with the former northern kingdom of Israel, Jeremiah spent his career predicting the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem. His challenging message – that his fellow Judeans ought recognize their fate as God’s will and at the same time place their hope and faith in an eventual restoration – rendered him unpopular in the extreme.

Historically speaking, Jeremiah’s prophecies got it right. In 586 BCE the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and marched the Judeans into exile. Two generations later, led by Ezra and Nehemiah, many exiles returned and began the building of a second Temple in Jerusalem. Exile and return; or, fragmentation, dissolution, dislocation, restoration; or, coming apart followed by coming together again. It just might be the oldest of all of our Jewish narratives. And it’s a story, the story, that we keep telling and re-telling.

Our haftarah picks up the tale at the ‘hope for eventual restoration’ scene. Speaking to a fractured people, half of whom had already been exiled, the other half of whom faced imminent conquest and another round of exile, the prophet begins by referencing our peoples’ founding moment, the Exodus from Egypt. His reassuring word conveys the idea that the relationship between God and the people of Israel is permanent, forever. “Eternal love I conceived for you then; Therefore I continue My grace to you. I will build you firmly again, O Maiden Israel! Again you shall take up your timbrels And go forth to the rhythm of the dancers.”

וְאַהֲבַ֤ת עוֹלָם֙ אֲהַבְתִּ֔יךְ – with eternal love I have loved you, and,

ע֤וֹד אֶבְנֵךְ֙ וְֽנִבְנֵ֔ית – rebuilding is right around the corner…

That rebuilding will reunite the two estranged halves – Ephraim and Judah – “Again you shall plant vineyards On the hills of Samaria; Men shall plant and live to enjoy them. For the day is coming when watchmen shall proclaim on the heights of Ephraim: Come, let us go up to Zion, To the Lord our God!”

The moment’s despair is real, as Jeremiah’s best known and most poignant image, that of Mother Rachel weeping for her lost children makes clear. “Thus said the Lord: A cry is heard in Ramah—Wailing, bitter weeping—Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted For her children, who are gone.”

ק֣וֹל בְּרָמָ֤ה נִשְׁמָע֙ – a voice is heard in Ramah…

Jeremiah responds to the people’s despair with an equally real and deeply powerful expression of hope. “Thus said the Lord: Restrain your voice from weeping, Your eyes from shedding tears; For there is a reward for your labor—declares the Lord: They shall return from the enemy’s land. And there is hope for your future—declares the Lord: Your children shall return to their country.”

יֵ֨שׁ שָׂכָ֤ר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ֙ – there is reward for your labor, and

וְיֵשׁ־תִּקְוָ֥ה לְאַחֲרִיתֵ֖ךְ – there is hope for your future…

A few lines later, just after the conclusion of our haftarah, Jeremiah spells out that hope. “See, a time is coming—declares the LORD—when I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel and the House of Judah.”

וְכָרַתִּ֗י אֶת־בֵּ֧ית יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל וְאֶת־בֵּ֥ית יְהוּדָ֖ה בְּרִ֥ית חֲדָשָֽׁה׃ – a new covenant made with both the House of Israel and the House of Judah.

Disruption and dislocation, while truly terrifying, also serve to clear the deck, offering up an opportunity to clarify, to dig deep, to articulate what matters most. Jeremiah’s animating ideas – God’s love is eternal, rebuilding can happen at any moment, there is, always and forever, hope for the future, and renewed commitment and connection can and do take place – are also the generative ideals of Jewish life and Jewish history. It is Rosh Hashanah after all; renewal, repentance, return are the themes of the day. Coming together follows coming apart follows coming together as day follows night which follows day.

Twentieth century Jewish thinker Simon Rawidowicz, in a celebrated lecture turned oft-reprinted essay, colorfully describes the phenomenon this way: “The world makes many images of Israel, but Israel makes only one image of itself: that of a being constantly on the verge of ceasing to be, of disappearing.”

Exhibit A: the Book of Jeremiah. Exhibit B: this summer’s screaming headlines about the fractured relationship between American Jews and Israel.

First came the AJC 2018 SURVEY OF AMERICAN AND ISRAELI JEWISH OPINION with some stunning findings. Here are just a few:

“78% of Israelis and 69% of U.S. Jews agree that a thriving Diaspora is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people, while 15% of Israelis and 17% of American Jews disagree.”
“79% of U.S. Jews and 87% of Israelis agree that a thriving State of Israel is vital for the long-term future of the Jewish people, while 17% of US. Jews and 6% of Israelis say it is not vital.”
40% of Israeli and 39% of American Jews view each other as extended family.
28% of Israeli and 12% of U.S. Jews view one another as siblings.
10% of Israeli and 15% of U.S. Jews consider each other as first cousins.
And 22% of Israelis and 31% of American Jews consider the other as not part of their family.
And then we get to politics…

“77% of Israeli Jews approve of President Trump’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations, only 34% of American Jews do. A majority, 57%, of U.S. Jews disapprove, while only 10% of Israelis do.”

As Lawrence Grossman, AJC’s Director of Communications, puts it, “The message of the AJC survey is clear. If the concept of a global Jewish community – am ehad – is to retain any meaning, each of its two major components must develop a greater appreciation for the priorities and needs of the other. If not, the next AJC survey will find even more American and Israeli Jews writing off those in the other country as ‘not part of my family.’”

A few weeks later, Natan Sharansky and Gil Troy, writing online in Mosaic Magazine, put it in the form a rather challenging question. “Can American and Israeli Jews Stay Together as One People?” Here’s their up-to-date snapshot of the Jewish people, circa 5779: “clashing frequently, arguing intensely, but for the most part unwilling to call it quits.” “The present moment,” say Troy and Sharansky, “is especially volatile…On both the American Jewish and Israeli scenes, our era of bad feelings has fed a deepening pessimism about any prospect of a shared Jewish future.”

‘Not part of my family’ and ‘deepening pessimism about any prospect of a shared Jewish future’ are powerful tokens of disruption and fragmentation. Our people, “dying for thousands of years” (another of Rawidowicz’s provocative phrases), seems to be dying yet again. So, we need a Jeremiah to remind us of essentials, to set us straight, to help us chart a path forward. Or, to put it in good Leninist language, ‘what is to be done?’

Already this summer, much digital ink has been spilled in an early effort to articulate solutions and plans. There’ll be a great deal of debate and argument to come – this is the JEWISH people we’re talking about! – but a few large themes have already emerged and are worth noting.

Ronald Lauder, longtime president of the World Jewish Congress, in a full page ad in Sunday’s New York Times (how better to talk to the American Jewish community?), spells out “four basic principles.” 1. We are One People. 2. Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israel Lies Must be Fought. 3. We Should Never Have to be Afraid to Practice our Faith. And 4. We Must Never be Silent – ‘When people of any faith are assaulted, we must speak out.’ I accept all of Mr. Lauder’s principles and yet they feel inadequate to me, not far-reaching enough, and more than a little defensive.

More needed, in my view, is an affirmative, forward looking vision and concept. Yehuda Kurtzer of the Hartman Institute is on the right track. “…what if we told a big enough and concrete enough story about what it means to live at this moment at Jewish history…a story that could translate into a program for the Jewish people? Can narrative once again save Jewish peoplehood?”

Narrative has always saved Jewish peoplehood. Narrative, I would argue, created the Jewish people. It is, it has always been, a shared story that connects us to one another – land of Israel Jews and Babylonian Jews, Sefardim and Ashkenazim, Hasidim and Mitnagdim, Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews.

What reworked version of that story, of our story, do we need to tell now? Kurtzer, again, points us in a productive direction. “A serious American Jewish Zionism would also articulate twin meanings of home for American Jews (here) and homeland (there), unconvinced by the arguments that the one invalidates the other.” And lest you miss the ‘hope for the future’ element of the current moment, Kurtzer adds this uplifting thought. “The contemporary moment offers unparalleled possibilities for a rich Jewish future offered by two thriving Jewish civilizations, as well as the unique opportunity to improve on the legacy of the Jewish past.”

I got to hear two powerful renditions of our shared story just in the past few weeks. I’d like to share them with you.

Last week, our son Josh was given the opportunity to speak about his personal experience of ‘aliyah and army service at his unit’s annual Rosh Hashanah gathering. Representing the lone soldiers in his unit – the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territiories – Josh delivered his words in quite beautiful and flowing Hebrew. Here’s some of what he had to say. “We left behind a lot – family, friends, opportunities, familiar culture – in order to fulfill our Zionist identities.” He went on to share that growing up with Hebrew at home and at school, learning Tanakh and Jewish history, personal experience in Israel, clarified that the Zionist part of his identity had the deepest meaning. For our son, connecting American Jewry and Israeli Jewry in his very person is what it means to be alive at this moment in our people’s history.

A week earlier I had an opportunity to meet and hear Michal Uziyahu, who lives and works in one of the communities on the Gaza border. One of three speakers at a JNF event whose aim was to share the experiences of Israelis living within range of rockets and incendiary kites launched from Gaza, Michal spoke about her pride in her Israeli identity and history. She then shared that a few years prior she had come to Colorado as a shlicha (an official ambassador and emissary from Israel). It was here in America, Michal said, that she discovered Judaism and grew a Jewish identity. Listen to that formulation! Israeli comes to Denver where she finds, and falls in love with, Judaism. Like our son Josh, Michal embodies a powerful and meaningful set of connections that bind American Jewry and Israeli Jewry to one another.

Prophetically perhaps, Rawidowicz intuited all of this in the State of Israel’s infancy, nearly 70 years. “The two parts of the Jewish people may be destined to live under different flags…yet they will always have one heart and one spirit. They may have two national anthems, but one song will live in their hearts…”

The Torah describes itself as a song that we, the people of Israel, are commanded to write for ourselves. כִּתְב֤וּ לָכֶם֙ אֶת־הַשִּׁירָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את The great task of our generation of ‘last Jews’ is to write and sing that new Torah and to teach it to one another. It will be a song of unity, a teaching of deep respect and affection for the two broad streams of Jewish life in our time, a narrative of connection, commitment, and honest relationship. That shared story, our shared song of Torah, can indeed ‘save Jewish peoplehood’ in this most extraordinary moment in our history.

Yesterday I shared with you the centuries old practice of adopting a Biblical phrase whose gematria adds up to the current year’s number value. A verse from 1 Chronicles (17:21), part of a prayer offered by King David, fits the bill – וּמִי֙ כְּעַמְּךָ֣ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל גּ֥וֹי אֶחָ֖ד – And who is like Your people Israel, one unique nation? The people of Israel, one people, yesterday, today, tomorrow. Ken y’hi ratzon – may it be the Divine will.

L’shana tova tikateivu v’teihateimu – may we all be inscribed for a good and sweet new year.

2018-09-15T18:27:58+00:00

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