First Day of Pesach D'var: Congregation Beth Shalom, Seattle, WA
April 19th, 2011
The Duality of Pesach: Remembering that we were once 'Strangers in a Strange Land' yet that 'in Every Generation there are those who rise up to Destroy Us'
Passover commemorates our journey from slavery to redemption as a people.
Over thirty-three hundred years ago, we as a people rose up, and with the help of the Almighty, orchestrated history's first emancipation movement, challenging the status quo and insisting that the values of freedom, justice and peoplehood were both sacrosanct and achievable. A remarkable accomplishment. The Jews of Egypt left the sweaty swamps of the Nile for the arid deserts of Sinai, and ultimately Israel.
And today, over 33 centuries later, we still retell this miraculous story of our exodus and redemption as a free people as we sit around Seder tables all over the world. More than Yom Kippur or the Sabbath, the first night of Pesach remains the most observed holiday in the Jewish calendar. In Israel, even the most secular of Israelis find meaning and value in the Seder ritual.
It is said that we are a people of the book, but before we had "the book" we had stories; and a powerful oral tradition that transmitted those narratives. We remain profoundly connected to our past, as we give new meaning each year to the injunction "to remember the exodus as if we ourselves were enslaved, and we went out to freedom and were redeemed."
Our tradition is richly imbued. We are asked to remember the Exodus each year, and at least 36 other times during the year we are enjoined to remember that we were "once strangers in a stranger land" and to treat the 'stranger' among us with that consciousness. In Leviticus Chapter 19, Verse 34, we are told:
"When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."
And yet, we begin our Seders with the memory of:
Ayleh shebechol dor va'dor, Omdeem Aleinu L'Chaloteinu!
In Every Generation there are those who Rise Up Against Us and Seek to Destroy Us.
It is the greatness of our tradition that reminds us that even in the face of those threats, we must find ways to reassert our humanity and never lose sight of this central tenet of our faith: To act morally towards the 'Other.'
A formidable challenge which I'll return to later.
But first, let's go back to this "In Every Generation there are those who Rise Up Against Us and Seek to Destroy Us" business.
What's amazing is this was written long before the Crusades, the pogroms, or the Holocaust: Likely sometime between 200 BCE and 200 CE. It's amazingly clairvoyant in its prognostication that one of the world's oldest sicknesses, anti-Semitism, will continue to afflict. From the Pharaohs to the Philistines, Nebuchadnezzar to Haman, the Greek-Assyrians to Titus and the Romans, the Crusaders, Torquemada and the Inquisition, the Cossacks, Hitler and all the way up to Ahmadinejad, Hamas & Hezbollah, people have sought to destroy us because we are Jews.
Yet we have persevered, survived, empowered ourselves and prospered. We as a people have maintained a continuity to our ancestors in Egypt, in part by retelling the story of the Exodus every year at our Seder tables. We have fortified ourselves with the promise, unrequited for almost 2 millennia, L'Shana Ha'ba-ah B'Yerushalayim!
And for the past 63 years that promise has been realized. The miracle of our people's return to Zion has occurred. We are indeed a "stiff-necked" people; a people of resolve, with profound reservoirs of memory.
So why are we also so prone to forget? We forget the miracle of our redemption, both in ancient times as well as modern. The recreation of the modern state of Israel is perhaps the greatest miracle yet, and equally miraculous is the fact that in the face of unmitigated attacks, 63 years of wars and terror, surrounded by many hostile states and non-state actors dedicated to our destruction, we have not only survived but thrived. Israel remains a beehive of creativity, innovation, invention, and cultural renaissance. World class writers like Amos Oz, Alef Bet Yehoshua, and David Grossman continue to produce inspired literature. In science, cutting edge technologies garner Israel more nobel laureates per capita than anywhere in the world. Israel continues to send humanitarian relief teams to disaster sites like Haiti, Japan, and the Muslim world, when permitted. And Israel remains the safe haven it was created to be for Jews the world over. The in-gathering now includes tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews and over a million from the former Soviet Union.
It's so easy to see all the ills that plague modern Israel and forget the miracle of what's been created in such a short historical time. The nay-sayers tell us that the sky is falling on Israeli democracy, that fascism is slowly taking over, that civil rights are fatally endangered and that the country is headed for disaster.
To be sure, problems abound, and Israel has made many mistakes (as I might add, have all democracies). Helping create Hamas was certainly a doozy. Israel's parliamentary system breeds the worst in coalition governing, where horse trading is the coin of the realm. But let's remember, Israel moved to a center-right government not because Israelis are inherently xenophobic, racist or paranoid, but because the Left in Israel was decimated (and devastated) by the failures of the peace process and the last ten years of terror and asymmetric wars launched even after more territory was relinquished, in Lebanon, the northern West Bank and all of Gaza.
And yes, the Occupation is untenable, it's morally destructive to the Israeli soul, and as bad as it is for the Palestinians, it's also corrosive to the basic tenets of Zionism. All of us agree that a two state solution is what we are striving for. The conundrum is how to achieve it and maintain Israel's security, while keeping Hamas from turning a Palestinian state into an Islamist launching pad in range of Ben Gurion Airport, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv.
So, what's all this have to do with Passover, you ask? Well, let's go back to the challenge of remembering: Remembering we were strangers in a strange land, to treat the 'other' accordingly, and at the same time, Remember that "In Every Generation there are those who Rise Up Against Us and Seek to Destroy Us."
Israel has enemies today, and they are formidable. There is of course, Hezbollah and Hamas, who openly acknowledge that they are dedicated to Israel's destruction, and their state sponsor, Iran, who is doggedly pursuing a nuclear option to realize their leadership's dream of unleashing a second Holocaust, even as they deny that a first one ever took place. Still, militarily, Israel does not face anything close to an existential threat today, although a nuclear Iran would change that. But our enemies are nothing if not resourceful and adaptable. Much of the war against the Jewish State has shifted tactically from the military realm into the ideological and psychological.
Our enemies wage asymmetric wars, blurring the lines between combatants and civilians, cynically hiding amongst their own populations even as they are deliberately firing on Israeli civilians. They then use international NGO's, UN committees, and the court of world opinion to try Israel as the aggressor and war criminal. A new term has been coined to describe this: Lawfare.
And even though Judge Goldstone, who headed the UN Human Rights panel commissioned to investigate alleged Israeli war crimes during the Gaza War, retracted his major accusations earlier this month, the damage the Goldstone report caused over the past two years cannot be so readily undone. As Jeffrey Goldberg commented, "it's not so easy to retract a blood libel." The "Goldstone Report" has had the ironic effect of lessening Israel's willingness to make compromises for peace and withdraw from further territories, for fear that if attacked from those territories and it legitimately defends itself, it will again be accused of 'war crimes.'
BDS, or the Boycott, Divestiture, and Sanctions movement is another insidious effort to undermine the very legitimacy of the Jewish State. Last week, President Obama's Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, Hannah Rosenthal was in town. At an AJC breakfast I asked her if her office was taking a public stand against BDS. She said it wasn't because they saw the movement as largely ineffective. That the BDS movement was having a negligible economic impact. I suggested to her that she was missing the ideological and psychological success it was having, helping to isolate and alienate Israel, adding fuel to international efforts to delegitimize Israel and make her a pariah state.
In the Haftorah today, Joshua approaches a man who holds a drawn sword in hand and asks him, "Halanu Atah eem L'tzareinu? Are you one of us or one of our enemies?"
To the modern ear, this may sound like simplistic reductionism that no longer bears relevance to today's complex realities and shifting paradigms. To the ancient ear, this was a natural inquiry. I would argue that regardless of today's complexities, on certain questions, we as a people have a right to know if you're with us or against us, are you friend or foe, a supporter of Delegitimation and Demonization efforts, a supporter of Standards and Expectations applied to Israel but to no other country on the face of the earth?
Are you an apologist for enemies of our people who shoot anti-tank missiles at a school bus or butcher a family of five in their home on Shabbat?
Or do you believe, as believe it or not, I have heard from members of Seattle's Jewish community, that "There are no enemies out there; only Friends we haven't yet made."
We as a people can't afford the luxury of that kind of naivete.
We have to have more seichel because for a smart people we can sometimes act pretty dumb.
We need to acknowledge that we have enemies. Organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, who are dedicated to our destruction and are happy to say so, are our enemies. There is no place for moral equivalency when people fire missiles at a school bus or butcher to death the Fogel family, or those who then celebrate such heinous acts. A jihadist organization like Hamas who kidnaps Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and then holds him in captivity for almost five years, completely isolated from his family, without benefit of a visit by the Red Cross, is an enemy, and they are evil, and we shouldn't be afraid to say so.
But lest I be seen as being some kind of paranoid, fear-mongering Islamophobe, let me clarify. Many, many in the Arab world and Palestinian society are not our enemies. We should be--and are--relentlessly searching for ways to live in harmony with our neighbors. And, I would even go so far as to say we may even have to talk to and negotiate with enemies like Hamas, but let's not delude ourselves that everyone in this world is interested in pluralism. Or that all groups and ideologies are redeemable.
Today's reality is that while Israel may not face an immediate existential threat militarily, the threats from Demonization and Delegitimation do pose an existential urgency. And we need to stand together, Left & Right, Religious and Secular, Orthodox & Reform and assert unequivocally that Israel's right to exist as a Jewish State is not only non-negotiable, but that it is a primary responsibility. This is not to say that we don't need to work harder to create a more civil, just and decent society in Israel. We do; and it is all Jews' responsibility. But we must acknowledge that if we don't collectively battle the forces dedicated to our demise, we will not survive to create a better society that we can all be proud of. All else pales when compared to this challenge.
Just last month, Reform Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch addressed the Central Conference of American Rabbis in New Orleans
He asserted what he deems to be Red Lines for our community, lines that go way beyond disagreements over a particular government or that government's policies. I think they're important enough to repeat
-- If Jews in the name of Judaism and the Jewish community advocate boycotting Israel
--If Jewish organizations lobby for UN and international sanctions against Israel
--or Pressure Congress to reduce foreign aid to Israel
If Jews support and promote such actions,
Then the organized Jewish community must oppose these forces with everything we've got.
First: b/c these views are marginal in the Jewish community.
Second: b/c these views threaten the very existence of Israel. I draw the line at restricting Israel's right or capacity to defend itself.
Third: These views are morally outrageous, especially if you express them in the name of the Jewish people.
Not in my name.
Anti-democratic regimes are boycotted; not democracies. Libya should be sanctioned, not Israel. Myanmar should be boycotted, not Israel. Divest from China if you care about human rights, not Israel.
By joining those who speak only of Israel's faults and not the enormous contributions that Israel has made to the welfare of Jews and the world; by allowing unimpeded Israel-bashing masquerading as justice, human rights and international law, we distort reality.
And it is our role to put the discussion about Israel in proper and more balanced context.
Life is about context. Truth is about context. In Israel, this context is already taken into account when people protest and assert rights. But abroad the context is often dominated by Israel's enemies.
There is a campaign [in the world] to delegitimate Israel. To deny this is to deny reality. There is a campaign to portray Israel in the most negative light possible. This is an existential threat to Israel--a far greater threat than apartment complexes in Efrat, which in any case, will remain in Israel in any permanent solution.
We rabbis, the Jewish establishment, and all others who define themselves as pro-Israel--cannot place ourselves in circumstances where we actually give aid and comfort to those who seek Israel's destruction, or weaken Israel in any way, especially in its capacity to defend itself.
So, back to the challenge of maintaining our values, teaching our children derech eretz, fostering pride in our heritage and literacy in our history, and remembering we were strangers in a strange land...
To paraphrase Rabbi Hirsch; context is everything.
Israel was severely tested from 2000-2004 when the terror war launched by Arafat and his minions turned the schoolyards, buses, cinemas, malls, restaurants, discotheques and ordinary city streets of Israel proper into a battlefield. Under the circumstances of this unprecedented existential attack against their nation, the Israeli people handled themselves with exceptional restraint and great dignity. No modern democracy has sustained that kind of unabated barrage of terrorist attacks, day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year. It is only in that context that Israel's defensive measures to protect her citizenry should be scrutinized.
And the same goes for the restraint Israel demonstrated over 3 years following its complete withdrawal from Gaza, only to see literally thousands of rockets and mortars fired into civilian areas in southern Israel. One has only to conduct a simple thought experiment and ask, what would America's response be if Mexico was launching rockets into San Diego and even further up the California coast? What would France do if irredentist Germans in Alsace-Lorraine decided to lob bombs into Burgundy and Paris?
Rather than judge Israel by an unrealistic standard of perfection, we must ask ourselves how well other democracies would have stood up to such assaults.
It's easy to act kindly when you're Switzerland. But the true test of a decent and moral society is how it conducts itself when it finds itself under siege. I respectfully suggest that this Passover we ask ourselves the hard questions of how a society ensures the safety of its own citizenry and respects the human and civil rights of all, starting with the most basic of human rights, the right to life and the right to exist.
I have a confession to make, even though it's the wrong holiday.
Much of my born-again Zionism is an organic result of my work over the past 15 years with our Jewish elders. And today's parsha begins with Moses summoning all the elders
together. Elders are venerated in our tradition, even when they become weak, frail and less than whole. In the Babylonian Talmud, it is said that Moses shattered the first set of stone tablets with the 10 Commandments, in his ire at seeing the sinning Israelites. Yet the shards of those shattered tablets were placed in the Holy Ark in the Tabernacle alongside the second, whole set of tablets. The broken tablets are esteemed the same honor and value as the whole ones. And so it is with our elders...
I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a final moment to mention the advent of Jewish Hospice in Seattle. I’m proud to be leading this program under the auspices of the Kline Galland. We’re the first Jewish Hospice in the Pacific Northwest. Our spiritual and philosophical underpinnings emanate from Jewish practices around death and dying. In a word, our motto is “Honoring Life.” Rather than focus on death, we put our energies into helping individuals live fully and meaningful until their last breath. We embrace hope even as we acknowledge the impinging realities of life-limiting illnesses.
As Jews, we're comfortable with paradox and balancing sometimes competing realities. Despite those who may rise up in every generation and try to destroy us, we affirm life, we counter anti-Semitic hate with love; we choose building and creating when others strive to destroy us; Our way, the Jewish way, is to defeat evil and ignorance and hatred with constructive acts of tikkun olam.
I’ll end with a passage from Psalms
Teach us to use all of our Days, that we may Attain a Heart of Wisdom…
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
The Duality of Pesach: Remembering that we were 'Strangers in a Strange Land' yet that 'in Every Generation there are those who Rise Up to Destroy Us'
First Day of Pesach D'var: Congregation Beth Shalom, Seattle, WA