Rabbi Freedman delivered this sermon at Shabbat evening service on January 31.
We are still in Egypt. In this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the final three plagues, and Pharaoh ultimately agreeing to release the Israelites from bondage. But, for now, we are still in Egypt for one more week.
After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites will eventually make it to the biblical Land of Israel. However, we never get there in our Torah readings. We end each yearly lectionary cycle on the far side of the Jordan river— never quite making it to the Promised Land.
In 1948, the Jewish people saw the actualization of an almost 2000 year old dream— the creation of the modern State of Israel. We returned to the historic land of Israel. And although we now have a physical Jewish homeland, in many ways, we have not yet reached the Promised Land – in many ways, we are still in Egypt.
Israel is the homeland for the entire Jewish people. But when the Israeli government pays the salaries of hundreds of Orthodox rabbis and only nine Reform rabbis, we are still in Egypt. 20% of Israelis are Orthodox; so when 100% of Jewish marriages are controlled by the Orthodox rabbinate, we are still in Egypt.
When the Western Wall, the holiest site in the world for all Jews, is set up as a gender segregated prayer space, we are still in Egypt.
And when funds from the JNF (the Jewish National Fund) are illegally used to support settlement expansion, we are still in Egypt.
Many of the complex issues that face Israeli society feel beyond our control. As American Jews, we cannot vote in the upcoming, unprecedented third Israeli parliamentary elections in less than a year. There was also a Middle East peace plan unveiled this week by the White House that sadly, further illustrates our diminishing role in shaping a two state solution.
Underscoring the problematic, unilateral nature of this most recently plan, head of our movement, Rabbi Rick Jacobs wrote, “We laud all efforts to bring peace and firmly believe that a secure Israel side by side with a viable Palestinian state is in the best interest of American foreign policy and, of course, for the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. We also believe that peace must be negotiated directly by the parties, with American support.”
At the end of the day, America cannot solve the Middle East conflict; we have lost credibility as an unbiased mediator and much of the work is now up to Israelis and Palestinians.
With so much of Israel’s future feeling beyond our control, what then, are we, as committed Reform Zionists, to do? Well, I am here tonight to tell you that for only $7.50 you can have a direct impact on the future of the State of Israel.
You have the power, like Moses and Aaron and Miriam, to bring us out of Egypt and into the Promised Land that Israel should and can be.
Between January 21 and March 11, American Jews can vote in the World Zionist Congress elections. By voting you will be able to choose one of the many slates representing diverse political beliefs, religious denominations, and cultural traditions. This coming October, the 152 delegates elected from the United States will join hundreds from Israel and around the world at the 38th World Zionist Congress, the international “parliament of the Jewish people,” to make decisions and set policies regarding key institutions that allocate nearly $1 Billion annually to support Israel.
ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, the Zionist arm and voice of the Reform Movement, is one of the slates running in this election, and I believe it is the slate best suited to help bring us out of Egypt and make Israel a Promised Land for all.
This is not just theoretical. The WZC has real power and these decisions affect people’s lives in powerful ways.
I just received an email the other day from Kol HaNeshama – an amazing Reform synagogue in Jerusalem. They were once again asking for financial support from American Reform Jews, as the government has consistently withheld funding from them. ARZA delegates to the WZC will work to ensure that Reform synagogues in Israel get the same funding as Orthodox ones.
Two years ago, at Temple Emanu-El of New York City, prominent progressive rabbis officiated at the weddings of three Israeli couples who were deprived of the right to marry at home because they are not considered to be Jews according to Israel’s chief rabbinate, because they are gay, or because they reject the rabbinate’s rigid control over Jewish marriages and divorces. ARZA delegates will work to end the Orthodox monopoly of marriage in Israel.
When our congregation brought a group of high school students to Israel a few years ago, I saw first hand the bigotry that exists at the Kotel, the Western Wall. What should have been the highlight of the trip for many, was a difficult and painful experience as young women in our group were admonished for wearing kippot or not being modest enough. ARZA delegates will work to ensure that the Western Wall is a place for all Jews.
The president of ARZA, Rabbi Josh Weinberg, notes in a recent Times of Israel blog post, “Due to our strength in numbers, stemming from the [last] WZC elections, we were able to blow the whistle on secretive land purchases, exposing behind-the-scenes funding of settlements. We took action as soon as we were alerted to the circumvention of funds. But, let me be clear – we are not cutting ties with KKL [The Jewish National Fund]. On the contrary. If we don’t have a presence there, this behavior would have continued. It was the very fact of our leadership position, and our presence, that allowed us to demand transparency, full accountability, and change.”
ARZA delegates will be our voice for a progressive Israel.
So, if you live in America, are over the age of 18, identify as Jewish, and are not planning on voting in the March 2nd Israeli elections, then go online to arza.org, pay the $7.50 administrative fee, and cast your vote for a pluralistic, democratic, and egalitarian Israel.
In this week’s potion, Moses says to Pharaoh that “we will not know where we are going to worship God until we arrive there.” (Exodus 10:26) On the surface, he meant that remark to keep Pharaoh in the dark. Ironically, however, Moses himself wasn’t sure where they were to worship God. Uncertain of their destination, not knowing what they were to do when they got there, the Jews had to be willing to take a leap of faith into the unknown.
We do not know what the future holds for Israel. But we can have a role in shaping it. Your vote is the only democratic opportunity you have to influence Israeli society as we continue our efforts towards equality, pluralism and tolerance.
In the coming weeks, as our Torah tells the story of our ancient ancestors leaving Egypt for the Promised Land, let us have hatikvah, the hope, that we too can journey together out of Egypt and make Israel a Promised Land for all.
Ken Yehi Ratzon, May This be God’s Will.