These words were delivered as the Rosh Hashanah Sermon for Temple Beth Tikvah on September 25, 2014.
Yom Teruah. That is another name for Rosh Hashanah. Yom Teruah – the Day of Teruah Blasts. What is a Teruah blast? We know it is the call of the shofar. It could be for joy or it could be for war. Today, it is a wake up call. Not just to wake up from a spiritual slumber as Maimonides instructs us, but a call to action. A call to wake up because our people – the Jewish People – they need us.
I remember the tour to Israel that I led a number of years ago now. We went into the underground tunnels below the Kotel. There was an area that was blocked off because of the excavations. Our guide, Zvi, somehow managed to get the guard to look the other way so we could go into this chamber…which, quite frankly, looked pretty dangerous.
As he was telling us about the room, he held onto some scaffolding and dangled himself over what seemed to be a tremendous ledge. He was scratching around in that section of rock and then… he came out and opened up his hand.
It had ash on it. Soot. It was from the Roman destruction of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem in the year 70 of the Common Era. There was our history, right on his hand.
…and here we are in Roswell, Georgia.
Ashes from destruction are a symbol not simply of death, but also of survival. Of resiliency: the resiliency of all of those Jews who made sure that there would be another link in the chain. And not just a link… not just another generation of existence, but of creativity, innovation, adaptation, dare I even say Reform.
Those generations heard the blast of the shofar. They heard the call… to life.
When I think of resilience today, I am inspired by our brothers and sisters in Israel. Let me tell you why:
When Hamas calls for a revolution, they purchase rockets.
When Israel calls for a revolution, they purchase computers.
When Hamas wants to build new construction, they invest precious resources in not-so-secret tunnels to enter into Israeli territory to do harm – to attempt to kidnap or maim innocent civilians.
When Israel wants to build, it sends cement to Gaza as humanitarian aid with the intention of building new homes and helping to ease the pain of a depressed society.
When Hamas fires against Israel, it aims indiscriminately from residential areas, mosques, and hospitals.
When Israel fires against Hamas, it takes great pains to warn the people to get out of the way. Israel first drops … not bombs … but leaflets, to let residents know that real fire will be coming. Along with the leaflets, there were text messages and voicemail messages to cell phones. Then there was the “roof knocking,” where the Israeli Air Force dropped a non lethal bomb to make a loud noise with minimal damage, just to encourage people to get out of the way. From the point of view of a military strategist – this defies all logic because you are basically informing your enemy when and from where you are striking. Hamas, in turn, encouraged people to stay and go to rooftops so that they can say: Israel took these lives! Look at what Israel did.
When Hamas kidnapped and killed innocent Jewish teens, they saw a victory – some morbid achievement.
When Jews murder an innocent Palestinian child, Israelis travel to East Jerusalem to extend their condolences…by the busload. The Prime Minister, the President, national leaders apologized and said that this kind of murderous behavior is not only criminal, it is un-Jewish. And congregations around the world added Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the fifteen year old Palestinian child killed by Israeli Jewish radicals to our Kaddish Lists, along with Eyal Yifrah, Gilad Shaer, and Naftali Fraenkel.
With all of this said, this is what concerns me….
In Genesis, we learn that Esau is approaching Jacob’s camp with his own men. The two brothers haven’t seen each other for years. After all, Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright and the blessing of their father, Isaac. The last they saw each other, Esau threatened Jacob’s life! As Jacob learned of Esau’s approach, the Torah says: “And Jacob was greatly frightened and distressed.” Our sages ask why the two descriptions: “frightened and distressed”?
The great medieval commentator, Rashi, explains that Jacob was “frightened – lest he be killed; and distressed – lest he kill [his brother Esau].”
It reminds me of Golda Meir’s famous quote: “When peace comes, we will perhaps in time be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons.”
Israel has been going through great pains to minimize innocent civilian life amongst the Palestinians, putting their own soldiers in even greater risk. From a typical military officer’s point of view, this approach would most likely be considered foolish. From an Israel Defense Force military officer’s point of view…. It is right and it is just.
What other country would ever consider such a thing?
One of the most interesting pieces that was written during the conflict was by Amos Oz. Oz is not only a world renown writer, but a devoted peacenik and activist. Just before this interview, he was hospitalized and for each rocket that came close to the hospital, he was left vulnerable, unable to be moved to a shelter. Listen to how he addressed the reporter:
Amoz Oz: I would like to begin the interview in a very unusual way: by presenting one or two questions to your readers and listeners. May I do that?
Deutsche Welle: Go ahead!
Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?
Question 2: 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?
With these two questions I pass the interview to you.
He added in this interview:
… This morning I read very carefully the charter of Hamas. It says that the Prophet commands every Muslim to kill every Jew everywhere in the world. It quotes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion [a notorious forgery created by Russian czarist police officers in 1903 and later used as Nazi propaganda and still used in the Middle East to “prove” that the Jews are taking over the world]… It quotes the Protocols and says that the Jews controlled the world through the League of Nations and through the United Nations, that the Jews caused the two world wars and that the entire world is controlled by Jewish money. So I hardly see a prospect for a compromise between Israel and Hamas. I have been a man of compromise all my life. But even a man of compromise cannot approach Hamas and say: ‘Maybe we meet halfway and Israel only exists on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.’
Let me explain why I have shared this. It is one of the few times we have seen such a wide spectrum of Jewish and Israeli leaders come together in support of Israel. Left to right. Only the fringes were left out. What they don’t agree on is what to do next, how far to go to advance the cause of peace. But that is a different sermon.
I know that some struggle with my pronouncements of sympathy for Palestinians. Some might think that all Palestinians are the same. We, as Jews, object to such generalizations made about us. For good reason. I do not want to be associated with the people that killed the Palestinian teenager or who vandalize mosques in Israeli Arab cities. So how do we dare perpetuate such generalizations about Palestinians or Muslims?
If Jews believe, as the Torah asserts, that everyone is created in God’s image… if we believe that in every person, there is a reflection of God, then how can we have a cavalier perspective with another human being’s life? Even if that human being hates us.
At the same time, The Torah tells us that we are obligated to defend ourselves. There is a text in Exodus where a thief is discovered tunneling into a house. The assumption is, since he is being so covert about it, that if he makes it inside, not only will he steal from the homeowners, but he will threaten the lives of whoever is in the house. It is shockingly similar to what Hamas was doing this past summer. Our sages explained that if someone is coming into your home with the intent to kill you, you can not only defend yourself, you will not be guilty of murder if you kill him first.
We are also taught in the Talmud that when the Israelites left Egypt and crossed the Red Sea, they started to celebrate. When the angels up in the heavens wanted to dance along with the Israelites, God…seeing his Egyptian children drowning, rebuked the angels, saying: “My handiwork is drowning in the sea – and you are singing?”
I will always be proud of Israel for choosing ethics over strategy. For, despite what anyone says, continuing to provide electricity to the very people shelling Israeli cities so that all of Gaza wouldn’t be dark is a Jewish decision. Sending in truckloads of humanitarian aid during a war is a Jewish decision. Setting up a field hospital in Gaza for Palestinians injured in the fighting is a Jewish decision.
Don’t get me wrong, the people of Gaza are living and have been living under terrible circumstances. And no matter what they think, it is their own leaders – the leaders of Hamas – who are guilty of war crimes.
How does the rest of the world miss that? Honestly, I can’t comprehend it. When rockets are being launched from Gaza into civilian areas, Israel is at fault for responding?
There is something even bigger going on here. It is not only that anti-Semitic incidents are increasing, but increasingly tolerated, cloaked as “anti-Zionist” views. Make no mistake – they are on in the same.
There has been a marked increase in anti-Semitism, manifested by vandalism, violent attacks, and chants of “Death to the Jews” across the world.
In a recent report, the U.S. State Department found that throughout Europe, the historical stain of anti-Semitism continued to be a fact of life on Internet fora, in soccer stadiums, and through Nazi-like salutes, leading many individuals who are Jewish to conceal their religious identity.”
Calls for Jews to be gassed were heard in Germany. More than 100 congregants were besieged for hours in a central Paris synagogue by an angry mob. The Turkish nongovernmental organization IHH (which instigated the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident) has threatened that “Turkish Jews will pay dearly” for Israel’s actions in Gaza. In Britain in July, there were roughly 100 anti-Semitic incidents, double the usual number. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan stated that Israel’s defense against Hamas rocket fire amounts to “barbarism that surpasses Hitler.”
Signs were posted in Rome urging a boycott of 50 Jewish-owned businesses. In central London, anti-Israel protesters targeted a Sainsbury’s grocery, and the manager reflexively pulled kosher products off the shelves. (The supermarket chain later apologized.)
We have seen conflicts in our own country where students are directly challenged on college campuses, where pro Palestinian … I should say anti-Israel student groups are planning an international day of protest…today, Rosh Hashanah.
An Episcopal priest at Yale University wrote in the New York Times that “the best antidote to anti-Semitism would be for Israel’s patrons abroad to press the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for final-status resolution to the Palestinian question.”
And this summer, a Hamas spokesman went on the record to state that Jews use the blood of non-Jewish children to make matza — one of the oldest anti-Semitic canards around. It is hard to fathom that in 2014 we are still confronting blood libel allegations.
J.J. Goldberg of The Forward just wrote: “If there’s one thing we should have learned from the 20th century, it’s that wars are wicked, murderous affairs that defile the spirit of humankind. That despite this universal truth, there are some wars that must be fought, as wicked as they might be, because the alternative is even more unspeakable.”
I think that statement is correct. Gaza is not Atlanta and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal isn’t Dr. King. Hamas isn’t fighting for peace nor for self-determination. They are fighting to get rid of Israel. If they wanted self-determination and justice for Palestinians, they would have sat down with Israel at the peace table and concluded a treaty.
Friends, what should our response be?
When we hear allegations about blood libel, what do we do?
When we learn about shootings in a JCC that are targeting Jews as we did this year in Kansas City, how should we respond?
When we hear of candidates for Congress who openly claim that “you will lose with Jews” as we hear today in Kentucky, what needs to happen?
When we hear about vandalism, physical and verbal assaults in Europe, are we to be silent…again?
I understand that people are fearful. These are scary things. They are terrifying. But if the fear paralyzes us, then they win. If we stop being Jewish, then the ashes in the tunnel will be all that is left. We cannot go back to a place of fear, checking out, leaving the work for others to do.
Nor is it enough to just cry Gevalt. It is time to live our Judaism out loud, as if each Jewish action is another blast of the shofar, proclaiming to all that Judaism matters, the Jewish people are strong and that Jewish values can help make the world a better place.
For every anti Israel, anti-Semitic, anti Jewish act, we return with a greater resolve to observe a mitzvah. We will not just complain or make a new Jewish joke, but will make a Jewish choice that can change the world. We will show greater support for Israel. We will be more generous to agencies that reflect our values. We will be inspired to light Shabbat candles and invite our non-Jewish neighbors to celebrate with us as we reclaim our truth to be an Or L’Goyim – a light unto the nations. We will become ambassadors for light, warmth, tolerance and mutual respect.
For every act of vandalism against a synagogue, we will show up at our own synagogue.
For every attack against Israel, we will be getting ready to plan our next trip to Jerusalem.
We will be waiving the flag for birthright Israel for our young adults and we will raise resources to send our teens there for the summer or a semester.
For every slur against the Jewish people, we will advance the rule of law, we will fight discrimination, and we will speak out against racism, homophobia and sexism. We will strive for greater inclusion and deepen our interfaith relations with our neighboring churches, mosques, temples and holy places.
And we will answer ignorance, indifference and untruths with Emet – Truth, one of God’s Holy Names… Emet/Truth.
And yes, we will strengthen those institutions that are on the front lines, where the American Jewish Committee works with Parliament leaders around the world, where the Anti Defamation League continues to help us as our fact finder and advocate. We will urge our politicians to strengthen the office of the US State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, Ira Forman.
Each morning tefilah, we recite the prayer L’dor Vador.
L’dor Vador nagid godlecha
To every generation we will declare Your greatness
U’l’neitzach n’tzachim k’dushat’cha nakdish
And for all eternity proclaim Your holiness.
V’shiv’checha, Eloheinu mipinu lo yamush l’olam vaed.
Your praise, O God, will never depart from our lips.
We teach the next generation how to stand up by living Jewish lives even when it isn’t easy. We show the next generation that we care enough to bring them here, today, to listen to rabbis preach and to pray with a community. We teach the next generation by modeling what it looks like to support the Jewish community, to write letters to our representatives, to send them to Israel for a summer, to support the community so that we can send more who can’t afford it together. We hold leaders accountable and we speak the truth within our hearts.
It is Yom Teruah – the day of the shofar blasts. The blast is as much as a wake up call as it is a call from the voices, the cries, the fears of our people. We can do our part to assist them, strengthen them, and reach out to them by living with conviction. And by doing so… we strengthen ourselves and our own community.
It is a privilege, beyond words, to dream with Israel and share its destiny. To be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
As the prophet Isaiah says: “For Zion’s sake I shall not be silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I shall not rest, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness and her salvation as a flaming torch.”
May the blast of the shofar envelop us, inspire us, and encourage us to listen…and to act and to be a spark in that torch.
 Genesis 32:8.
 Press conference in London (1969), as quoted in A Land of Our Own: An Oral Autobiography, edited by Marie Syrkin, 1973: 242.
 “Lose-lose situation for Israel,” Deutsche Welle, July 30, 2014. http://www.dw.de/oz-lose-lose-situation-for-israel/a-17822511.
 Rava: “If somebody comes to kill you, kill him first” (Sanhedrin 72a); Rabbi David Golinkin, “What Can We Learn from our Sources about the War in Gaza?” Volume 8, Issue No. 10, August 2014. http://www.schechter.edu/Responsa.aspx.
 Megillah 10b.
 Rev. Bruce Shipman, Letters to the Editor, August 21, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/26/opinion/the-rising-tide-of-anti-semitism.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar%2C%7B%222%22%3A%22RI%3A13%22%7D&_r=0
 I found Goldberg’s words right on target, but I don’t believe he would apply the same message to the war in Gaza. This article addresses the threats of ISIS: http://forward.com/articles/206078/like-the-nazis-isis-must-be-confronted/#ixzz3E395IN5z.
 Isaiah 62:1; Rabbi Marc Angel concluded a sermon this way and it is has always left an impression with me.