Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 2014

Rosh Hashanah Morning
September 25, 2014
Rabbi Eric S. Gurvis

On July 18th, after 3 weeks in Jerusalem, my dear friend, Rabbi Howard Jaffe and I decided we would head to Tel Aviv to welcome Shabbat with the Beyt Tefillah Yisraeli on the promenade overlooking the Mediterranean Sea in the port. On a Friday evening during the summer one can easily expect as many as 1000 Israelis gathered for an inspiring and invigorating Shabbat celebration. It is breathtaking to welcome Shabbat as the sun dips into the Mediterranean. However, this summer Israeli officials placed a ban on outdoor public gatherings in excess of 300 people. Hence, Beyt Tefillah was forced to welcome Shabbat in their new indoor location in a nearby community center. About a half-hour before services were to begin, we found a coffee kiosk a block from the community center, and decided to grab a cup of coffee. Like others, sitting at the nearby picnic tables while sipping our coffee we savored the quiet as Shabbat approached. Ten minutes later that calm was shattered by the shrill sound of the by-then familiar Tzeva Adom/Red Alert sounding throughout Tel Aviv, a sound of reality in Israel this summer. “Howard,” I said, “follow the Israelis” – and we joined the race to a nearby apartment building.

Another reality this summer: an ordinance was passed requiring apartment houses and multi-story buildings to leave their front doors unlocked so that anyone in the vicinity could enter and take refuge in the Miklat – the fortified shelter. As we reached the nearest building with a crowd of Israelis, we found the door locked. I said, “Let’s head around back,” knowing we’d find a covered parking area in which to take shelter. The protocol with a Tzeva Adom is to wait ten minutes after the sounding of the sirens before exiting the shelter. In just moments we heard the familiar thud of Kippat Barzel – the Iron Dome doing its job, detonating the missile mid-air. This thud was closer than any other we’d heard or would hear this summer. As we emerged, we noticed clusters of Israelis in the street, their eyes fixed on the sky above, with their cellphones rapidly shooting pictures of the evidence of Iron Dome’s success in a sizeable trail of smoke above our heads. We each took a deep breath and we headed to services, eager to find some familiar faces as well as the peace and calm of Shabbat. Rabbi Esteban Gottfried greeted us with no small measure of surprise. He told the thirty or so of us gathered, that after the tzeva adom he was certain no one would come for Kabbalat Shabbat. Yet, the crowd slowly grew, numbering almost 100 by the end of services.

This was a far different summer than I’d anticipated when I set out on sabbatical in late June. I looked forward to studying at Hartman; travel in Israel with friends; time at Eisner Camp; and special for this summer, a long-awaited baseball trip with my son Jacob. I expected a busy, yet largely uneventful summer. As I flew to Israel on June 26th I knew three yeshiva boys had been missing for several weeks. I knew there were random missiles being fired at Israel from Gaza. We all knew the latest peace negotiations had fallen apart in April. In no way did I think this summer’s visit to Israel would involve a noisy, violent and destructive conflagration between the State of Israel and Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other radical elements within the Palestinian population. Things turned quickly.

First came the discovery of the bodies of Eyal, Naftali and Gilad three days after I arrived. This was followed by the abduction of Mohammed Abu Khedir, and the discovery of his horribly brutalized and burned body. All the while there was an uptick in missiles flying out of Gaza. Israel repeatedly called for Hamas to cease firing missiles. “We don’t want to go to war with you. We’ll give you 48 hours to stop the missiles.” This was followed by an additional 24 hours. “Quiet for quiet” became the refrain of this summer.

But quiet was far from what Hamas had in mind. After absorbing an alarming number of missiles several days in a row, Israel responded. Aerial attacks were launched. A week later the ground troops entered Gaza. Rather than quiet for quiet, the Palestinian community of Gaza, the residents of Israel, as well as parts of the West Bank, found themselves dealing with firepower for firepower. In Israel it was no longer a random siren here and there. The handful of missiles turned into hundreds fired at Israel each day. The network of terror tunnels uncovered by Israel in Gaza was staggering. This might have been a very different Rosh Hashanah as one tunnel was to have been used by Hamas militants to attack a Kibbutz near the Gaza border on this very day. The tunnel reached all the way to the Kibbutz dining hall. I wonder how we, or the world would have dealt with what might have become reality of this day had they succeeded.

Israelis became accustomed to having their routines interrupted by tzeva adom, such as the one we heard that Friday afternoon in Tel Aviv. Depending on where you are when tzeva adom sounds, you have between 15 and 90 seconds to seek shelter. I’d had one brief brush with a tzeva adom a few years ago on a visit to the Israeli communities near the Gaza border. This summer brought a very different reality to the communities in the South, in and around Jerusalem, and in the very center of Israel, where much of the population resides. It was also a reality faced by our teens from North America and other places who had come to Israel this summer to experience the Jewish state and encounter Jewish history and identity.

The missiles used by Hamas are mostly crude in nature. They are intended to disrupt daily life, to foster a sense of uncertainty and insecurity among those at whom they are aimed. In this sense, Hamas achieved no small measure of its objective, as life in all but the extreme North of Israel was rendered anything but normal, with Israelis and visitors alike having to be mindful of the nearest shelter at any moment. Following services that Shabbat evening in Tel Aviv, Howard and I joined friends and colleagues for Shabbat dinner. Not fifteen minutes into the meal, all of us who were dining by the seacoast that Shabbat evening found ourselves racing for cover as the sirens blared yet again. After the requisite waiting everyone returned to the table, reclaimed their seats and resumed eating, drinking, and schmoozing. In some bizarre way it was as if nothing had happened. By this point, the end of the third week in July, this was the “new normal” for summer 2014. It was an experience shared by Israelis and visitors alike as the days went by. By our last week in Israel Howard and I realized we were often virtually alone walking the streets and eating in the cafes. Most tourists had left. Israelis simply went to work or stayed home, rather than deal with the nuisance of finding shelters and racing around in the sweltering heat of summer. It was not out of fear that Israelis stayed home, nor was fear a factor for us. We were never afraid something would happen to us. But a palpable pall hung over Israel as the weeks went by.

The difficulties and tragedies of this summer were not limited to Israelis and others across Israel racing for shelters, or changing their plans to avoid areas most likely to be targeted. We know that the destruction and loss of life in Gaza far exceeded that on the Israeli side of the border. Yet, to comprehend the events of this summer, we cannot simply look at numbers. This conflict is far more than a numbers game. A difficult reality of the conflict this summer (like that between Israel and Hezbollah 8 years ago) is that Israel faces an unconventional enemy. The reality is not one army facing off against another. In fighting Hamas and Hezbollah, Israel’s Defense Forces and their leaders constantly find themselves in situations in which enemy combatants are not wearing uniforms. Hamas’ missiles are not launched from military installations. Their fire blazes forth from homes, schools, mosques, and on occasion, from supposedly neutral safe places such as UN-administered schools and shelters. Videos surfaced of Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters emerging from behind groups of children, and schools to hastily set-up and launch their missiles. Their task completed, they’d take cover behind the innocent civilians whom they sometimes compel to serve as human shields. This renders any Israeli response all the more complicated. I believe Israel had to respond once her call “quiet for quiet” was ignored. For me, experiencing this summer’s conflict from Israel was entirely different from being at home here in the US, where I believe the media did a great deal of damage in reporting on the conflict.

I recognize that on the subject of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict there are a myriad of strongly held views in our community. I respect that. This morning I am speaking from out of my experience this summer, and from my heart as continue to I wrestle with the realities I experienced. I neither expect you to agree with me, nor do I assert that I know I am correct. I only know how I feel. Some of you may be upset, disappointed or even angry about what I am about to say. This morning I am speaking from my heart. In the weeks and months to come, I am more than happy to meet you over coffee or tea so I can hear what’s in your heart. In late October, I invite you to join me as I convene a Sunday morning series for learning and conversation so we can share our concerns and observations in a respectful and safe setting. Our gatherings will be rooted in the Hartman Institute’s Engaging Israel program. Many in our community have already shared this experience. Even so, issues such as Peoplehood, Core Narratives, Morality on Battlefield, the Occupation and other such issues are still relevant and are worthy of further discourse.

This summer sharpened my thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It forced me to concretize some of my thinking about the Israel I love. First: I believe that as a Jewish community it is incumbent upon us to care about Israel and her people. That does not mean we must support all the policies and decisions made by Israel’s elected officials. As Americans, most of find ourselves at odds with the policies and decisions of our elected leaders at one time or another. But we do not walk away from our country. Neither can we walk away from our people. Given our people’s history, and the rise of global anti-Semitism, to which I’ll return on Yom Kippur, it is incumbent upon us to do what we can to support our brothers and sisters in Israel as they face isolation and despair that peace may never come.

At the core of our Jewish tradition lies a moral code by which many of us strive to live our lives. We also expect Israel, as a Jewish state, to strive to live by that code. The Israel I love is imperfect, but that moral code has been at her core since the Declaration establishing the State was signed in Tel Aviv on May 14, 1948. “THE STATE OF ISRAEL will . . . foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions . . .” Has Israel lived perfectly by its founding principles? Hardly! But neither is Israel a failure. Democracy is noisy and messy (don’t we know that here at home?) Israel struggles with living as a Jewish and democratic state. We, who value democracy and human rights, must stay committed to walking with Israel as she struggles to strengthen her democratic ideals and preserve security for all. The reality in Israel is no different from our own United States. Deeply held principles often get caught in the crossfire of different political factions and parties.

The IDF has a Code of Morality for the Battlefield. No other country has as stringent a code as the Israel Defense Forces’ Tohar Nesek – Purity of Arms, which in part reads, “IDF servicemen and women will use their weapons and force only for the purpose of their mission, only to the necessary extent and will maintain their humanity even during combat. IDF soldiers will not use their weapons and force to harm human beings who are not combatants or prisoners of war, and will do all in their power to avoid causing harm to their lives, bodies, dignity and property.” Did every member of the IDF live up to this ideal perfectly this summer? We can assume not. Wars are messy, especially asymmetrical war, in which it is nearly impossible to separate combatants from civilians. No one is asking more pointed questions of Israel’s military conduct than Israel herself. And note, even in the midst of this summer’s tragic conflict, Prime Minister Netanyahu put forth the notion that at the conflict’s end Israel must help the residents of Gaza rebuild their homes and their lives. What other country makes such a statement while still in the midst of conflict?

At the same time, I cannot forget that it was also Prime Minister Netanyahu who, late on Friday afternoon July 11th (let’s call it the slow part of the news cycle) proclaimed, “Now the world must see why we can never relinquish the West Bank and our security to anyone else.” His comment went largely unnoticed. Not by me Mr. Prime Minister. You absolutely have the obligation to seek the safety and security of Israel and all her citizens. I believe you had no choice but to order the response you did at the end of the first week of July as your call for “quiet” was rejected with increasing attacks on Israel. However, at the end of the day, statements such as the one you made that late Friday afternoon give no one any confidence that you mean what you say when you speak of two states for two people. Israel and the Palestinians must finalize an agreement that in truth has been largely outlined for years whereby Palestinians will have their State (albeit not in the fullness of the territory some want) and Israelis will likewise enjoy security and sovereignty in Israel (albeit an Israel somewhat smaller than some might insist upon.)

I believe that there is no solution other than a two-State solution. I believe that those who argue for the status quo as a long-term solution are mistaken. Israel cannot hold the nationalistic dreams of another people hostage. And, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other radical Palestinian factions cannot hold Israelis hostage to lives of terror. Even if their crude missiles do little damage, the cost of the terror is high, as the cost of war is high. The sooner moderates on both sides of this divide come to that realization, and act to control and defang their respective extremists, the sooner that both Israeli and Palestinian mothers can sleep at night secure in the knowledge that their respective children are safe. I want the Israel I love to reach for the dream of Prime Minister Menachem Begin z”l, who in 1979 proclaimed: “It is time for all of us to show civil courage . . . to proclaim to our people and to others: no more war, no more bloodshed, no more bereavement, peace unto you. Shalom, salaam, forever.” I want the Israel I love to reach for the dream of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin z”l the weary soldier turned peacemaker, who declared: “Enough of war, enough of bloodshed. Enough.” The dream is still the right one. The reality, as we saw this summer, is a nightmare from which we must all awaken. Friends, it my most heartfelt prayer that the current ceasefire not only holds, but that it takes root and grows into the peace that both sides so desperately need.

The entire region is a tinderbox with flames burning out of control. Israel needs security and peace; Palestinians need no less. Are there courageous leaders on both sides who can bridge the gaps and bring that peace? That remains to be seen. This much I know: Israelis cannot spend their lives 15 seconds from bomb shelters; and Palestinians living in Gaza cannot see their homes demolished and their family and friends die as casualties in a conflict in which they are held hostage as human shields and captives.

What can we do? More than we might think. One option is to go to Israel. Israelis found their streets and businesses emptied in the noisy summer that has just ended. They need to know they are not alone. Let me tell you, as one whose flight was repeatedly cancelled during that several day window when the airlines stopped flying, Israelis came to feel a brand new sense of isolation. The impact was devastating. When we visit we send the crystal clear message: “you are not alone.” In December I will lead our next Temple Shalom group to Israel. Consider joining me, and your fellow Temple Shalom members in sending that message.

We must be steadfast in supporting those Israelis who are not only working for security and peace, but also to build a nation that stands for the values of human dignity, justice and freedom. The war with Hamas is a physical danger. Israel faces other challenges from within – in its courts, at its Holy Sites, in the area of economic justice and religious freedom. The Israel I envision and love cherishes her diversity. That Israel needs us in the game, not turning away. There’s more for us to do here, and I’ll return to that at another point during these Holy Days.

We must stay engaged in the struggle to build the Israel we hold in our hearts and our dreams, an Israel that represents the best of Jewish values. For now I close with words my teacher Rabbi Donniel Hartman wrote a few weeks ago, “To love Israel is to stand with it in good times and in bad times. To love Israel is to worry about its safety and to work to protect it. To love Israel is to believe in and to work for a new and different tomorrow.”

Shanah tovah!

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One thought on “Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon 2014

  1. Peter Adler says:

    Rabbi Eric, thanks for sharing your sermon. Believe me, your safety was very much on our mind while hearing about the situation in Israel this summer. L’shanah tovah.

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