Sermon for Parashat Masei 5774 July 26, 2015

This is the sermon I delivered two weeks ago when I returned from vacation and had the chance to address the Congregation about the situation in Israel and Gaza.

It is good to see everyone and to be back on the bima again. I have to be honest though, this was not the best vacation I ever had. As you can imagine, the past three and a half weeks were not a good time to find relaxation and rejuvenation.
But, I have very little to complain about and I know it. As difficult as it is to watch events from a distance and worry so deeply about them, it is no comparison to those who live it daily and our thoughts and prayers are with them.
While I have not been on the bima, I wrote quite a bit over my vacation, not only first drafts of high holy day sermons but also comments on Facebook and on my blog. Let me share with you my Facebook posting from two weeks ago, a posting which many of you read:

“A nation absolutely has the right and responsibility to defend itself against rocket fire. A nation’s people should not have to live in fear. But, we must never take for granted or merely accept the necessity of bloodshed, especially of innocent children and we must never fall victim to the celebration of military might. May Israel find the proper course as it fulfills its responsibility to protect its people from harm and continue to seek every opportunity possible for an end to this madness. With hopes for calm, quiet and real peace for all.”

Let me now add to that statement. In Hamas, Israel is fighting against an enemy which seeks its destruction and which employs unspeakably horrible tactics. Those tactics endanger its own civilians and that is an understatement. The rocket attacks continue and the tunnels leading into Israel are proof of the intention for more terrorist attacks. No matter how much I detest war and am sickened by what I see, I know that Israel has to defend itself and has to destroy this capability of its sworn enemy to the best of its ability.
But, I can’t stand on this bima this morning without placing this entire situation in context and without offering a fervent hope for an end to this horrible, horrible madness and for compassion for the innocent.

There is a beautiful Midrash which teaches that when God created the world, God was afraid that if the world was created only with strict justice, it would not survive. Nor would it survive if it were only created with compassion, with mercy. Thus, God brought both of the Divine attributes: din and rachamim, justice and compassion, to the creation of the world.

So, let us think about compassion. Regardless of our opinions on Operation Protective Edge, the moment we stop feeling compassion for those innocent people in Gaza is the day we no longer are reacting as Jews. How compassion should be brought into the political and military equation is a theoretical, philosophical question for each of us to decide. It is the Israeli military and government’s responsibility to answer that question pragmatically. I know that this is being discussed and I pray being put into action. But, for all of us, compassion is critical. We can’t ever lose it. We should never apologize for it and we can’t ever diminish its importance.
Over the past few days, I have become very concerned about the sudden proliferation of statements against against the ideas of liberal or progressive Jews. There are so many out there who are mocking what they see as naivete or even celebrating the crumbling of liberal ideals as they vilify those who still are upholding hopes for peace or reconciliation or who have dared to question whether the degree of Israel’s military actions are justified.
I’m not talking here about those with clearly anti-Israel or anti-Semitic viewpoints. I reject those entirely and I have no patience for them. I’m talking about those who love and support Israel but whose compassion is outweighing other emotions they feel. Those who openly say that they see their own children’s faces in the eyes of the children of Gaza as well as in the eyes of the children of S’derot, who still yearn for a better day and say military strength is not the ultimate answer.
I don’t think only “progressive” people should feel this way. All of us should feel this pain. All of us know this is not what Zionists had in mind when creating the Jewish State. Is military action necessary at this point? One could certainly argue that it is. But desirable? Of course not, all of us left or right want calm. All of us want peace and all of us must feel compassion.
But, for those who choose to say it more clearly, even as they express their love for Israel, rather than just put those ideals aside until calmer times, I say kol hakavod.
One of those people is Dr. Alex Sinclair, who is the director of programs in Israel Education and adjunct assistant professor of Jewish Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary. Unlike most of us in this room, he has had to run with his family to a secure room when the sirens are heard. In a piece he wrote for Ha’aretz which I urge you all to read, Dr. Sinclair tries to confront the popular idea that a liberal is a conservative who hasn’t been mugged yet. He has been mugged. He has felt the danger. And yet, he has not given up his progressive ideas and will not give up hoping for a better future.

Let me quote a piece of his writing that I share with his permission as we were in contact this week. He writes about what he thinks as he looks to the future:

“My own way of responding to the situation has been to focus on the following points:
1. Most Palestinians want to live in peace. They are held hostage by Hamas just as much as we are. This doesn’t mean to say that most Palestinians like Israel (they don’t), or accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state (they don’t), but it’s important to remember this core truth as a starting point.
2. As painful as this situation is for us, it is hundreds of times more painful for the Palestinians of Gaza, who do not have air raid sirens to warn them, reinforced rooms to run to, or iron domes to shelter them. Regardless of whether we agree or disagree with the rightness, wisdom, or specific tactics of Operation Protective Edge, we must retain our ability to empathize with the suffering of the ordinary Palestinians in Gaza.

3. The aftermath of this Operation will require a lot of rehabilitative work for the relationship between us and the Palestinians – even more than the vast amount that was necessary before. Many Palestinians simply hate us. In some cases, this is because of deep-rooted religious extremist fanaticism. But in many cases, it’s simply because, in their eyes, we’ve killed their friends, relatives, and innocent children; we have made their lives miserable; we prevent them from traveling beyond the confines of Gaza; and so on. Again, my point here is not to argue whether or not these Israeli policies are right or wrong, are justifiable, defendable, or not. It is to remind ourselves that in order to live in peace with our neighbors, we are going to need to talk with them, and in talking with them we are going to need to remember just how much pain and anger and understandable hatred they will have to overcome (as will we).
I don’t underestimate just how difficult and perhaps Sisyphean this task is. My experience of Arab-Jewish dialogue has taught me that the barriers are great, the distances between the sides are vast, and the narratives are often mutually exclusive. But I have also seen that with time, investment, and careful facilitation, breakthroughs can be made. To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war, said Churchill.
Being a liberal doesn’t mean that you have to condemn Operation Protective Edge; but it does mean that despite and along with the painful situation we have all found ourselves dragged into, we need to be clear and constant about how to break the cycle of violence in the future; to remember that most Palestinians want peace, to empathize with and acknowledge the terrible pain and suffering that Palestinians, especially those in Gaza, have endured, and to demand of our leadership and theirs that as soon as a ceasefire takes place, we all embark on a long-overdue process of dialogue, mutual understanding, empathy, acknowledgement and recognition, leading towards a two-state solution. Otherwise, all these deaths, on both sides, will truly be in vain.”

I could have quoted many Israelis this morning, and others have said vastly different things. But, I chose to share these words with you because they helped me to face a question that came to me as I sat down to write this week. I asked myself: “Specifically,What should a Rabbi say about the situation?” And besides expressing support for Israel and concern for the innocent people in Gaza, I decided that there was one other thing I had to say. What I had to say is encapsulated in my favorite political quotation of all time and it is reflected in Dr. Sinclair’s words.

Then Governor Bill Clinton began his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in 1992 by talking about his hometown of Hope, Arkansas and the values he learned there. He talked about the difficult times that he faced growing up and that the country was facing and ended his speech by saying what I say to you today, in the spirit of Dr. Sinclair’s words. Despite all that is happening and all of our conflicts:

    “I still believe in a place called hope”.

It is the obligation of a Rabbi, and of every Jew, to continue to hold out a vision of a better world, a vision of hope.
But hope demands actions and a different path when the time is right.
Please God, May that time come soon. And when it does may we all show as much passion, as much support, as much solidarity for Israel with her quest for peace as we have shown for the military efforts of the past three weeks.
Until that day comes, may all the children, of all ages, go to sleep at night and awaken in the morning having dreamed of a better world. And may that world come to be.

One thought on “Sermon for Parashat Masei 5774 July 26, 2015

  1. Laurel F.

    It is certainly important to have compassion for innocent civilians.
    However, what I would say is that the suffering we’re seeing now is exactly the result of idealistic but unrealistic policies of peace talks and land-sharing rather than decisive military victory and removing threats from Israel’s borders. Does anyone honestly think that the next round of peace talks will magically change things?

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