WE MUST SPEAK
Occasionally, I have written a sermon which started out appearing to be about one subject when, in fact, it was really about something else altogether.
I used that approach on my first Kol Nidre at Beth Israel 30 years ago. My sermon began with some thoughts on prayer but it really was heading in a completely different direction.
I began by focusing on a single word which is added to one of our most familiar prayers during the High Holy Day season. In the Kaddish we usually say that God is l’ayla mikol birchata above all of our attempts at praise. But, on the High Holy Days, we say God is l’ayla u’layla, above and beyond any attempts at praise.
I discussed in that sermon why we express an increased distance from God on the days when we are supposed to be closest to God, standing in judgment.
I asked: Is this merely another paradox to wrestle with, another contradiction to add to the long list of conflicts in Judaism?
I don’t think so.
I think those words are meant to remove obstacles to prayer rather than discourage us.
Here is how I explained it then: “If we keep in mind that God is l’ayla ul’aya,if we express the idea that that the words do not do justice to praising God, it helps us to feel more comfortable to say the words in our hearts that must be said. For by admitting that nothing we say will even begin to serve as proper prayer and praise, we realize that there are no magic words and with that pressure removed, we have no excuses, we feel free to express our thoughts.”
Then, continuing with the prayer theme for just a few more minutes, I provided four excuses that people who claim to want to pray might use for not saying words of prayer, none of which I believe, are legitimate excuses.
First: “:I don’t know the words to say.” In that case, say the words in your heart.
Second: “I may say something wrong.” There are many traditional Jewish texts which teach that there can be nothing wrong when we speak the words in our heart.
Third: “I can’t say what I hear others saying so I just don’t think about God.” There is no uniform belief about God in Jewish tradition. We are all over the map in how we conceive of God and of prayer and no matter how strange you may feel your theology or view of prayer is, I can guarantee you that someone in Jewish tradition has voiced the same thoughts.
And, finally: “Who am I to say anything to God? I’m not worthy”. We have every right to praise, to scream out, to be angry, to be thankful. We are God’s creation and we can, in fact, I believe we must, speak to God.
I expressed my belief that despite all of the obstacles, we must continue to try.
But, it was at that point that my sermon took a surprising turn.
I told the congregation that although I hoped that people found that thought provoking, my goal that evening was not really to talk about prayer.
I pointed out that those same four excuses: “I don’t know what to say, I may say something wrong, I believe something different, I have no right to speak”, are excuses that Jews often use for not talking about another subject, near and dear to our hearts, and that is the State of Israel.
My sermon that night changed direction and became a plea for people to express their opinions about Israel. I said that not talking was a way of losing connection with something important to us: “We must speak the thoughts lest the feelings disappear. We must speak in order to keep the emotion flowing or we will begin to lose the emotional attachment to Israel”. We will, if we are silent, stop caring. And I believe that today even more strongly.
I absolutely believe that it is essential that we talk about Israel and what it means to us as Jews. We must express our pride and praise and our disappointments and concerns.
And of the many things that have brought me great satisfaction over the past 30 years, Beth Israel’s reputation as a place where people can express their thoughts on this critical part of our lives as Jews is high on the list.
I am proud that we have done what synagogues should do. We have taken 5 congregation trips to Israel, co-sponsored an interfaith tour, participated in several federation missions, given scholarships to dozens of young people to travel and study in Israel, hosted an annual Yom Hazikaron, Israel Memorial Day ceremony, for the community, taught our religious school students about Israel and proudly proclaimed our emotional connection and concern for the state. We have strengthened our connection in the face of the horrendous vigil that has been such a horrible burden for all of us.
But, through it all, we have done something else. We have provided opportunities for people to talk, freely, to each other. We sponsored a class from the Hartman Institute called Engaging Israel which addressed some of the most thorny issues facing the State and our relationship with it. We have hosted a monthly conversation with members of Zeitouna, a Palestinian and Jewish women’s dialogue group. We have brought in speakers to speak about various human rights issues facing Israel, including Rabbi Arik Ascherman who will be in Ann Arbor at the beginning of May, and I have frequently used my time on this bima to praise Israel for all of its accomplishments and it all means to us and to raise critical moral and ethical issues which we, as rabbis, as Jews, can not ignore.
I know the latter point hasn’t sat well with everyone. Some ask: why should people hear criticism about Israel in the synagogue? My answer always has been that I would much prefer that these issues be raised here in what I hope is a spirit of love and concern rather than only being raised by those who seek to defame the State. I want our young people, especially, to know that those who say that Jews all express a “party line” about Israel are wrong: that there are vibrant conversations about Israel going on in many areas in the Jewish community, including the synagogue.
That Israel is not perfect is, in and of itself, no shame. No country is. The shame occurs when the issues are not addressed and when those who honestly feel that Israel can do better don’t say it because they don’t know what to say or they fear may cause disunity or they may say something wrong or they fear they have no right to speak. These are not valid excuses. We can and must talk. And, even more importantly, we must listen. Even if we hear words that we don’t agree with, as long as they are expressed respectfully, we must listen.
Today’s parsha begins with the words: Vayihee Bayom Hashmini“And it came to pass on the 8thday”. The 8thday, the day after the tabernacle was dedicated was a day of celebration until Nadav and Avihu offered strange fire and it consumed them.
As Israel begins its 8thdecade, it is time for a great celebration, so much has been accomplished, so much to be proud of.
But, as Israel enters its 8thdecade, the existence of the state is at stake. It is at stake not only because of legitimate and real external security concerns but also because of misguided internal policies. And, it is not only Jews who would label themselves progressive saying this. Ronald Lauder, president of the American Jewish Congress, wrote a piece in the New York Times a few weeks ago called “Israel’s Self-Inflicted Wounds” and was subtitled: Why I fear for the Nation I Love. This article made it clear that issues of concern, including, among others, the settlement policy, the failure to achieve a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians and the extreme power wielded by the ultra orthodox in disenfranchising non-Orthodox Jews are not left vs. right issues and are not raised only by people who are ambivalent about Israel. More and more staunch supporters and lovers of Israel are raising the same issues that some of us have been speaking about for years. I am encouraged by this trend and pray that it continues.
There is a Midrash that says that Nadav and Avihu’s sin was that they each brought incense separately and didn’t communicate with each other, standing apart from each other, each in their own world.
There is a great lesson here.
I believe that what is needed to prevent disaster in Israel is a determination on the part of all sides to talk to and listen to each other: Jews and Israeli Arabs, secular and religious Jews, Israelis and Palestinians. This is not naive. In some places it is happening and those sparks must grow in the years to come to be a positive constructive flame and to avoid destructive fire.
And, here, we must speak to each other from our hearts and be willing to raise the issues that others shy away from.
As with prayer, there are no excuses that should keep us from talking.
I hope and pray that this will always be what Beth Israel stands for.
I hope and pray that we will always talk.
And I hope and pray that more will listen.