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Rosh Hashanah 5775/2014 Rabbi Howard Jaffe  


Rosh Hashanah 5775/2014 Rabbi Howard Jaffe

Seek Peace and Pursue It

It was a mild Tel Aviv evening, a bit cooler than it usually is in the middle of July. I was sitting with my friend, Rabbi Eric Gurvis of Temple Shalom in Newton, on Rothschild Boulevard, sipping a cup of ice coffee on a bench by one of the ubiquitous kiosks that line that thoroughfare and give that part of the city much of its character. He was on the phone with his son, and I was looking at email on my smartphone when the siren went off. We both had gotten used to the drill by now. We had both already made a mental note of the nearest place where there was a shelter, an apartment building whose entrance was about 50 feet away from us, which, we knew, was close enough for us to run inside if we needed to do so, and make it into the shelter in time should a warning siren go off.

We had both ducked into shelters enough times already over the previous few weeks that it had become a part of the fabric of our daily lives. We knew that even though we were in the middle of the city, and the front door of an apartment building in that neighborhood would typically be locked, we also knew that there was an emergency ordinance in effect which required any buildings with shelters to remain open and accessible.

Apparently, however, someone did not get that memo. The door was locked.

Like many buildings of its style in Tel Aviv, that building has no apartments on the first floor, only a lobby, and the rest of the building stands on large cement pillars, creating a parking area off the street behind the building that is covered overhead, at least. We made our way around to that area, and hugged the wall with our backs, placing ourselves as much in the center and as far away as possible from the open sides of the building. We waited for what felt like a long time, but could not have been more than a few seconds, and then heard the boom, the loudest sound I have ever heard, as Iron Dome took out the rocket that exploded somewhere very close by.

We waited less than the suggested 10 minutes, which I had done the first few times, and when we went back out onto the street, we could see tourists in bathing suits pointing to the sky, and to the trail of smoke left behind, which appeared to be just a few blocks away.

A few hours later, Eric and I were having dinner with other friends at an outdoor restaurant along the beach. This was not an act of bravado, or an effort to be heroic. On some level, we were emulating our Israeli friends, who returned as quickly as possible to normalcy. That was, admittedly, challenging. In the middle of dinner, another siren went off. This time, the only shelter available was the kitchen area, into which we all huddled. I am still not certain if we were all in denial, or if we were all just a bit punchy, but the mood was different than any of the other times.

A few silly jokes were told, and I said to no one in particular, but based on the response, apparently loud enough for everyone in earshot to hear: “Now it’s getting serious. If my soup gets cold……” Someone suggested that I jump in the car and drive down to Gaza to give them a piece of my mind. While implausible, that is not quite as far-fetched as it sounds: the distance from downtown Tel Aviv to the Gaza border is only a hair more than 40 miles. That is right, 40 miles.

I learned in the weeks following that we were not the only ones embracing humor. Ben Mendales, son of Isaiah member Sam Mendales, grew up in Bedford, and here at Temple Isaiah, made Aliyah a number of years ago, and now lives in Tel Aviv. Ben is a sergeant in the reserves, and his unit was one of the first called up.  Like most of those stationed at the border, his unit was living in a temporary base, sleeping in tents in the summer desert heat. Another soldier in his unit, who grew up in Los Angeles, said to Ben at one point, “this is the worst Jewish summer camp ever.”

When I heard that, I could not help but think of my own kids, working at Jewish summer camp.

Laughter is a wonderful coping mechanism, and helps in maintaining one’s humanity, but it is unidirectional. Standing behind the building in Tel Aviv, and even in that restaurant kitchen, it was difficult to have any compassion or concern for those from whose direction those rockets were flying. To maintain my humanity, I needed to think about real human beings and how they were affected which I was able to do by recalling someone with whose story that I and many of us here today, are familiar.

A few years ago, Dr. Izzeldin Abulaish spoke to us here at Temple Isaiah. He was born and raised in a Gaza refugee camp, went to university in Cairo and medical school in London, and returned to Gaza to live, in the same refugee camp where he had grown up, but worked at a nearby Israeli hospital, passing through the Erez Crossing every day. He saw himself as a bridge to peace, bringing as many residents of Gaza as he could across the border for treatment at the hospital where he worked. He advocated for understanding and for building human relationships between those on both sides of the border. And as one of the few fluent Hebrew speakers in Gaza, he became something of a celebrity within Israel, particularly during the days of Operation Cast Lead, when he gave eyewitness accounts, by phone, on Israeli radio, of what was happening in Gaza.

Two days before the cease-fire which led to the end of that operation, in January, 2009, an Israeli shell landed on his home, which was fired in response to fire from his immediate neighborhood. It killed three of his daughters and his niece.

I think about Dr. Abulaish and his family whenever I find my own heart hardening towards the plight of the residents of Gaza, especially those killed by Israeli fire and their surviving families. I think of how he is still on the lecture circuit, pleading with whoever will listen to work for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The images we saw this summer were unspeakably painful, but for me, the story of someone with whom I have sat and talked, someone who stood here on this very bimah and spoke to our congregation, keeps me anchored in my humanity.

I admit that the experience of standing behind that building in Tel Aviv was the one time during my five weeks in Israel this summer, and perhaps the first time ever when I have been in Israel, that I was rattled and unnerved. Being in a shelter each time a rocket landed somewhere nearby prior to that occasion, I had never heard the sound, and it was relatively easy to suppress the thought of what had just happened. I was disquieted the first time or two, but not really shaken until I heard that boom, and had to accept just how close it was. The odds of being hit were small, but the impact was great.

It will probably come as no surprise that while I was in touch with Irene by phone and email several times a day, I chose not to share the details of that particular evening’s experiences with her until I returned home.

But friends, it was that night that I first began to understand, truly understand, what it means to live in that part of the world, and especially to live in Israel.

This was my 21st time in Israel, and it was qualitatively different from all others. I have a different sense of what it means to be Israeli, and a different sense of what it means to be Jewish, in September of 2014 than I did in June 2014.

But let me be clear: while those experiences profoundly impacted my thoughts and feelings about the peace process, they have not weakened my steadfast conviction of the need for a Palestinian state to exist side-by-side with Israel. If anything, those experiences strengthened that conviction. Israel cannot continue to live this way, and the people of Gaza cannot continue to live this way, not because of what Israel has done, and God willing, will never have to do again, but because of those who control Gaza.

In traditional synagogues, the Torah portion that we read a few minutes ago, the Akedah, the binding of Isaac will be read tomorrow. Today, the previous chapter, in which Isaac is born, and in which Hagar and Ishmael are cast out, is read. It is a painful story to read: Isaac, who in turn will sire Jacob who in turn will become Israel, supplants Ishmael, who, according to Muslim tradition and much of Jewish tradition, is a patriarch of the Arab people. Isaac, however, is the one brought up to Mount Moriah, Isaac is the one who is bound up, and  Isaac is the one who learns, horribly and terribly, the lesson that God unconditionally and categorically rejects child sacrifice. We tell that story here after year, on this day of all days, as we start the new year, to reinforce that lesson again and again. The children of Isaac, the children of Israel, the Jewish people, has internalized that absolute, unequivocal commandment of God.

The Torah does not tell us whether Ishmael ever heard about what took place on that mountain, whether he ever learned the lesson that Isaac did. Sadly, we know, and we continue to be reminded, at least some of the children of Ishmael did not.

It is indisputable that Hamas used children and others as human shields. It was confirmed over and again, that despite Israeli efforts to warn residents because of impending strikes, in order to minimize civilian casualties, Hamas did everything in its power to threaten and intimidate the residents of Gaza in order to maximize those casualties. Beyond that, however, is a fact that came to light more than two years ago, which only received attention this summer, and even then, surprisingly little: having now read all about the tunnels that Hamas built, we also read about how 168 children  died in the construction of those tunnels, 168 more children sacrificed by the leadership of Hamas.

No Israeli, no person of good conscience wants to do harm to the Palestinian people. Hamas put Israel in an impossible situation, best articulated by someone from few would have expected. The writer Amos Oz is one of the most well-known public figures in Israel, a man who has been called “the godfather of Israeli peaceniks”. He was the first public intellectual to call for a two state solution, 47 years ago. His credentials within the peace camp are unassailable. Oz was interviewed on a German radio station this past July, and began by asking his interviewer, “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?”

We know how Israel responded. The result was a storm of criticism and outbreak of anti-Semitism unlike anything we have seen in decades. Many news articles and opinion pieces spoke of Israel’s disproportionate response, especially noting the imbalance in the death toll. Apparently, if more Israelis had died, that would have somehow made Israel’s actions more acceptable, or at least tolerable.

Fair and reasonable criticism of Israel is not only appropriate, it is essential. Israel could not be the vibrant and robust democracy that it is without it. But friends, I have yet to hear any alternative resolution that would provide peace and security to the residents of Israel. Would any other nation in the world tolerate what Israel has endured - more than 11,000 missiles, rockets, and mortars fired into its territory since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip?? That is right, withdrew from the Gaza Strip. Israel left Gaza in 2005 in the hopes of moving towards peace and normalized relations. Yes, Israel still controls much of the Gaza border, as does Egypt from the other side, but in response to withdrawal, and removing its own people who lived within the borders of Gaza, Israel has been under constant and relentless attack.  And friends, bear in mind that there were 11 short term cease-fire agreements this summer. Hamas broke every one of them.

And there is a reason. If you have not read the Hamas charter, I urge you to do so. Allow me to share a few brief passages.

First, I quote from its preamble: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it."

And a little further on: “Israel, by virtue of its being Jewish and of having a Jewish population, defies Islam and the Muslims.”

By the way, elsewhere, it says that the Prophet commands every Muslim to kill every Jew everywhere in the world.

Are you familiar with Jewish concept of the rodef? The word literally means pursuer, and refers to someone who is set on murdering another innocent individual.  Jewish tradition not only authorizes, but requires anyone who is capable of doing so to stop the rodef, even, if necessary, by lethal force.

Hamas is a rodef.

But friends, Hamas is not the Palestinians, and the Palestinians are not Hamas. Hamas is a terrorist organization organized and recognized as a political party. It is not the Palestinian people, and any hope of peace hinges on that distinction.

Even if it seems distant, peace with the Palestinians is possible. Peace with Hamas is not. Hamas has made it clear that they have no interest in peace, only in the obliteration of Israel and a world free of Jews. Golda Meir famously observed that “We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.” With the help of Israel, the United States, and the rest of the world, including, ironically enough, Egypt, a Palestinian future without Hamas, a future in which no children will have to grow up with the kind of violence that has become the background for life in that part of the world, is genuinely possible. And friends, I am not being facetious when I say that if Egypt can be an ally of Israel…. Peace with the Palestinians is not so far-fetched.

But getting there will require deep soul-searching and ultimately, risk-taking, by Israel and by all of us.

It will require us each to become a rodef, a pursuer, as well, but of a very different kind.   Psalm 34 instructs us: ”seek peace, and pursue it” – “bakesh shalom, v’rodfeyhu.” Our rabbis explained that peace is not simply something to be found, but must be pursued, continuously and relentlessly. Peace can be made, but it must be kept. To be pursuers of peace, rodfei shalom, we must be fearless, in our interactions with each other, with our friends and neighbors, many of whom know little about Israel and its neighbors, and yes, fearless in our relationship with Israel itself.

Earlier this week, the New York Times printed an article about how many rabbis were avoiding talking about Israel this year, or at the very least, were trepidatious about doing so. That not only saddens me, it scares me. Have we reached a place where our disagreements about Israel, which once united us, now so badly divide us that we are willing to take ourselves out of the conversation in order to avoid confrontation with one another? Pursuing peace demands that we get past ourselves enough to listen to others. If we cannot have constructive, civil conversation amongst ourselves, what hope is there for peace between Israel and the Palestinians? Bakesh shalom, v’rodfeyhu  -- seek peace, and pursue it.

Shalom, of course, comes from the root for wholeness. We must reject the extremism of those on the left who assert that the end of hostilities at any price, including the disappearance of Israel, which far too many would welcome, as valid. That may lead to quiet, but it would not be wholeness. Bakesh shalom, v’rodfeyhu  -- seek peace, and pursue it - by embracing a path to a better future for all, not just some.   And we must reject the extremism of those on the right, who, in the words of the Israeli writer  Yossi Klein Ha-Levi,  “express their twisted love for the Jewish people with hatred for others, who endanger the precious miracle of Israeli democracy.” I was there this summer when they marched in the streets of Jerusalem chanting, “Death to the Arabs, ”in the days following the previously unimaginable kidnapping and burning alive of a Palestinian teenager by Jews.  We cannot be whole if we grant any legitimacy to such voices. Bakesh shalom, v’rodfeyhu  -- seek peace, seek wholeness, and pursue it.

As we enter the new year, as we enter the season of teshuvah, we need to open hearts, including some of our own, that have been closed by hate and fear, and use every resource we have to keep alive the hope that minds and hearts set on violence and destruction can be turned to the rebuilding and restoration of societies damaged by war. Bakesh shalom, v’rodfeyhu  -- seek peace, seek wholeness, and pursue it. The faith that change of this kind is possible is the central message of these Days of Awe. How can we enter them without faith that a new way is possible, that the vigorous pursuit of peace is our only real hope?

Yes, hope. Because without hope, there is little possibility of impacting the future.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of our Union for Reform Judaism, sent out an email to the leadership of our movement yesterday which concluded with these words:

“Israel's poet laureate, Yehuda Amichai, in his poem In the Old City challenged us to be: Negu'ay Tikvah - infected with hope. With all of the challenges facing our beloved Jewish State and our people worldwide at the start of 5775, many wonder if we can dare to hope.

‘Many of us confuse hope with optimism, a prevailing attitude that “things turn out for the best,” said Harvard professor Jerome Groopman in his book, The Anatomy of Hope. ‘But hope differs from optimism. Hope does not arise from being told to “think positively,” or from hearing an overly rosy forecast. Hope, unlike optimism, is rooted in unalloyed reality… Hope is the elevating feeling we experience when we see - in the mind's eye - a path to a better future. Hope acknowledges the significant obstacles and deep pitfalls along that path. True hope has no room for delusion.’   

In 5775 and beyond may we be infected with that kind of sober and deeply seated hope.”

To which I would only add, that fueled by such hope, may we find the courage l’vakesh shalom v’rodfeihu -- to seek peace and pursue it.

Ken yehi ratzon -- may it be so, oh God

And if you are so inclined, I invite you to say