Rabbi Kuhn’s Kol Nidre Sermon 5776: “The Hope”

Recently, I found a letter that had been written by Emily’s great grandfather to his grandchild, my wife’s mother.  It had been written from Philadelphia in 1922 and told of his family who had lived all together and happy in Odessa for many generations.  In 1900, in the face of pogroms and persecution of the Jews, the family was broken apart and made to move from their home.  Several of the family members emigrated to Palestine and her great-grandfather and the rest of the family came to Philadelphia.  His letter gave me a great deal of insight into the complexities of decision making which have been involved in Jewish immigration patterns down through the ages.

What causes a person to move away from a place where his or her family has lived for generations?  Whatever the reason, whether oppression or a decision to try to improve their lives in some way, the common thread that runs throughout all of our peoples’ wanderings is HOPE.  Hope for a better life, hope for the freedom to live in a land where we could be proud to be Jewish, hope to raise our children as Jews.

Abraham was the role model of Jewish immigration.  Our Torah tells of his feeling the call from God to “Lech l’cha,”  “Go forth from your native land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” [Gen. 12:1]

And so Judaism was born, as Abraham and Sarah moved from their home in Mesopotamia to the land that would become Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, to dedicate his life to the one God.  And ever since that moment, Judaism has been inextricably tied to the land of Israel.

But even there and then, Abraham at first did not feel he was really home yet.  He described himself as a “ger v’toshav.”  “Ger” is a stranger, and “toshav” is a resident.  So, he was both a resident and a stranger.  These two words may describe the Jewish dilemma throughout most of our history.  For thousands of years, wherever we have lived, we have never really been fully accepted.  Most of our ancestors certainly thought they were “toshav” residents of Europe or Russia.   They thought they were fully accepted, but of course, as we well know, the Jews were considered “gerim” strangers, outsiders by others.  [Gen. 23:4].

It was out of this atmosphere and these conditions that Zionism was conceived by Theodor Herzl in 1896, who called for a Jewish State in the Land of Israel.  For most Jews in Europe, life was out of their control, and Zionism offered them the hope that they could once again have their own land where they could control their own destiny, where they could truly be residents and not strangers.
Zionism is the belief that the Jewish people should have their own sovereign state in the Land of Israel.  There was a founding vision of the State, more than just a place of refuge.
That vision was, is and will remain throughout eternity, that Israel is a place where Jews would establish a society which lives by the teachings of Jewish ideals; a society which lives by the values of Jewish tradition.  A society that will be a “light unto the nations” where we show the world how to live and how to treat each other with dignity, compassion and respect. This is Zionism.  And I am proud to be a Zionist!

Zionism is an idea based on hope.  It is a dream arising out of  thousands of years of praying for the chance to live in our own land where we can dedicate our lives to “Ohev Shalom v’Rodeph Shalom,” “Love Peace and Pursue It.”  And I can assure you that Israel wants peace and wants nothing more than to live in peace with its Palestinian and Arab neighbors, and to accept them and to be accepted by them as regional partners in building a better future for all of them, in peace and in harmony.

But the war with Hamas in Gaza this summer proved that peace and harmony seem to be a long way off.  It seems absurd to have to say this, but Israel has a right to exist.  Period.  And Israel has an obligation to defend itself and its citizens.

The terrorist organization known as Hamas does not recognize Israel’s right to exist.  In fact, its charter spells out in no uncertain terms that they are dedicated to obliterating Israel.  You should read their charter!  You can Google it.  But I warn you, it will give you nightmares because it is a blood-curdling screed which calls for Moslems to stand up to their obligation to kill every Jew in the world.

This is why they fired thousands of rockets indiscriminately at Israeli citizens this summer.  This is why they used schools and mosques and hospitals and city streets crowded with civilians to stage their rocket attacks, so that when Israel tried to retaliate, Hamas would make sure there were plenty of civilian casualties.  Hamas used civilians, men, women and  children as human shields.  All for the purpose of making Israel look terrible in the eyes of the world.  And the biased media gladly cooperated with Hamas by beaming these horrible pictures to the world as often as possible.

Amos Oz is one of Israel’s most prominent writers, and one of the intellectual leaders of the political left in Israel.  This summer Amos Oz asked the question,  “What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on his balcony, and puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?”  Oz continued, “What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?”  [Deutsche Welle]

Oz’ questions chillingly get to the very heart of the situation in which Israel finds itself.  As long as Israel lives among neighbors who want to obliterate her, and will go to any extreme to make that happen, Israel will be forced to defend itself.  They live on a tiny spit of land, the size of New Jersey, and less than 10 miles wide at its narrowest point.  And Israel cannot afford to lose a war, for if it does, it will be gone.

But while engaged in the act of self-defense, Israel is sometimes called upon to do the unthinkable, to take the life of another human being.

There is a story in our Torah, which tells of the reunion of the brothers Jacob & Esau after a long and bitter separation.  You will remember that Jacob tricked and deceived his brother Esau and then fled for over 20 years.  Finally, the 2 brothers were to meet again, when the Torah tells us “Va’yirah Ya’akov m’od, Va’yeitzer Lo…”  “Jacob was greatly frightened, and he was distressed.”  [Gen 32:8].

The Midrash [Gen. Rabbah 76:2] asks why does Jacob say he is greatly frightened, and then repeat that he was “distressed?”  When the Torah repeats something like this, it is for a reason.

The Midrash says that the first time Jacob says he was greatly frightened, it was “out of fear for his own life.”

But the second time Jacob said he “was distressed” it was because he knew he may have to kill his brother in self-defense.”

This is the moral struggle in the Torah, and still we are greatly distressed that a single innocent Palestinian civilian had to die in Israel’s efforts to defend its own life.  We grieve because our values are steeped in the sanctity of life.  And we care about the humanity, dignity and suffering of all people, even those who would destroy us.

The message of Yom Kippur, especially on this holiest night of our year, is personal, not political.  It is about what it means to be a Jew in the world today, and about our relationship with the land, the state and the people of Israel.  And where we fit into Klal-Yisrael, the whole household of Israel and the Jewish people.
“Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh,”  “All Jews are responsible for one another.”  But why should we care for Jews who live on the other side of the world?  Here we live in the comfort and security of the United States.  All is well for us here in this sophisticated, tolerant city of Brotherly Love.  Why should Israel be central to our Jewish identity and to our Judaism?

Because we are all related.  During my year in Israel in rabbinical school, I developed a deep love for the land and the people.  I tutored some newly immigrated Russian teens in Hebrew, and I realized that these kids could be long-lost relatives.  After all the years of wanderings, Israel is a place where our vast extended family may meet again, maybe for the first time since we all stood at Sinai.  And when you are there, you feel the connection and the spiritual bonds among Jews everywhere.  We are all family.

Israel is central to our Jewish identity.  Remaining silent at a time like this, is not an option.  We are all “Rodphei Shalom,”  “Pursuers of Peace.”  And if we do not protect Judaism, who will?

What can we do?  First, you can learn more about Israel.  Raise your “IQ” your “Israel Quotient.”  This year, our congregation is offering more courses on Israel than ever before, as well as opportunities to engage in “chevruta” conversations “L’shem shamayim” “for the sake of Heaven.”   And it starts tomorrow at 1:30 pm with our study session on Israel and Anti-Semitism, with Rabbi Maderer and Rick Berkman, the national chair of the Board of Governors of the American Jewish Committee.  The Talmud [BT Kiddushin 40b] says that study is of tremendous importance because it leads to action.  When you learn more about Israel, you will be able to defend and explain our situation and you will be able to identify myths and lies about Israel.

I am aware that talk about Israel’s policies can be divisive.  I want to assure you that I want our congregation to be a place where different opinions are heard and valued.  One of the hallmarks of Rodeph Shalom is that we pride ourselves on being welcoming of all people and varying views.  There is room here to express support as well as criticism of Israel’s policies.  There will be a lot of opportunities for Israel conversations this year, and let all of our discussions be among friends,  “L’shem shamayim,” “for the sake of heaven.”

Visit Israel.  Go with our congregational trip in April to see for yourselves.  Israel is safe now, actually a lot safer than Philadelphia.  So, visit, go with us or go with your family or take a Birthright Trip.  Just go!  It’s a great way to learn more about Israel, and to show your support for our extended Jewish family.
And we must support our Reform/Progressive Movement in Israel, as well as the many other organizations which help the cause.
But most of all, we must stand in support of Israel and defend her against the onslaught of hostility from around the world.  Of course, we know Israel’s policies are not perfect…the occupation, the settlements…
But as Rabbi Richard Block said,  “Israel’s conflict with Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and other Islamic extremists is not about its borders or settlements or anything Israel does or does not do.  The conflict exists because the Jewish State exists.”  And Israel has a right to exist as the only Jewish State in the world.

And yet, we are the children of hope, even though it is sometimes difficult to maintain our optimism.  Anti-Semitism in Europe is raising its ugly head again.   While much of this arises out of hostility toward Israel, there is a “blurring of distinctions between being anti-Israel and being anti-Jew.”  [New York Times 9/24/14].  In this country we see the same blurring of lines through the outrageous anti-Semitic study guide circulated by the Presbyterian Church, and the morally reprehensible BDS Movement (Boycott, Divest and Sanction Israel) which seeks to delegitimize the Jewish State, even if there is a Palestinian state.

On Yom Kippur, we look inward and think about the kind of people we are and compare ourselves to the ideal that we aspire to be.  The difference between the ideal and the real is called “missing the mark,” in Hebrew “cheyt” or “sin.”

We may apply the same scope to Israel.  We know that Israel was founded with a vision, reflected in the vision of the Prophets to become an ideal society that our tradition expects of us.  And yet, there is a gap between the ideal and the real.  We know Israel has a right and an obligation to defend itself against terrorist attacks.

But that defense must be about more than land and buildings.  As Daniel Gordis said, there must be a defense of “the vision that blends resolve with tolerance, strength with utter decency, individual freedom coupled with a sense of serving something greater than ourselves…Zionism must reflect the very best of what our tradition stands for.”

When I lived in Israel in 1990, the first Gulf War broke out.  Faced with the threat of Sadaam Hussein’s SKUD missiles raining down on us, we American students were terrified.  One of our professors told us not to worry, because, he said, “your first war is always your hardest.”  After 9 wars and countless acts of terrorism since 1948, Israelis are the strongest, most courageous people I know.  And how do they do it?   As Ambassador Michael Oren said, they believe in the dream, aware of the dangers, grateful for the honor and ready to bear the responsibility.  Deriving its energy from a people that refuses to disappear – even after 4,000 years,” Israel will prevail.

May we share that responsibility.  And may we live with hope in our hearts and a prayer on our lips that this may be a year where the light of Zion shines ever more brightly.

“HA TIKVAH, THE HOPE”  [National Anthem of Israel]:  “So long as within the inmost heart a Jewish spirit sings, so long as the eye looks eastward, gazing toward Zion, our hope is not lost.  The hope of thousands of years:  to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

SOURCES:  Gen. 12:1.  Gen 23:4.  DW, Deutsche Welle Radio, July 24, 2014.  Gen 32:8.  Midrash Genesis Rabbah 76:2.  Babylonian Talmud:  Kiddushin 40b.  Rabbi Richard Block Rosh Hashanah Sermon, Sept. 25, 2014.  New York Times article on Anti-Semitism, Sept 24, 2014.  Daniel Gordis article Jerusalem Post, Aug. 3, 2014.  Michael Oren article Wall Street Journal, Aug. 2, 2014.  “HaTikvah” National Anthem of Israel.