Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 2023 – 50 years, to the day, since the outbreak of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. How different the world is today than it was just 50 years ago. And how different things are in Israel today than they were just 50 years ago.
In the spring of 1973, Jody and I were spending a semester in Israel. We lived and worked on Kibbutz Givat Chaim Ichud in the Sharon Valley. At least twice a week we used to go for afternoon tea to visit a woman name Lotte Aaron. Lotte was an artist. She spoke several languages, including fluent English, and we used to sit and talk for hours. We became friends. She spoke with pride about her two sons who were both studying in New York. In October of that year, the Yom Kippur war broke out. Lotte’s two sons rushed to Kennedy Airport and caught the first plane that they could – back to Israel. They wanted to join their reserve unit to fight in defense of their country. Within the first week of the war, they were both killed.
In the spring of 1973, Israel was a young, happy, confident, thriving society – full of strength and optimism and hope. The Yom Kippur War shattered that confidence and began a downward spiral in Israeli morale and in Israeli/Palestinian relations. In spite of some hopeful moments along the way, the past 50 years, and especially these last few months, have been filled with much discouraging news, and few realistically optimistic forecasts.
I feel compelled to speak about my love for Israel, and about my own liberal Zionism, especially today, the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War. I feel compelled to speak about Israel and about Zionism because I sense in the American Jewish community today, a growing disaffection towards Israel. That sense gives me great pause, and great sadness. And I feel especially compelled to speak about Israel this year because, right now, there is a battle raging in Israel for the nature of the soul of the Jewish State – a battle that touches every Jew everywhere in the world.
I know that there are some of you here tonight who resonate immediately with my expression of connection to Israel. You, too, feel the closeness, the attachment, the sense of connection to the homeland. And I also know that there are some of you here tonight who feel differently. To be sure, I know that you are not indifferent to the fate of the Jewish State and its citizens, but rather, your Judaism is lived here, in America. Israel, the land, simply does not exercise any pull on your soul. For those who already feel the strong attraction, it is almost unnecessary for me to try to describe my commitment to liberal Zionism. And for those who do not feel it, I want to try to explain, and perhaps to persuade, and maybe even to inspire.
I am a Zionist because: Israel is Eretz Moladteinu the birthplace of our people;
I am a Zionist because: Israel is Eretz Avoetinu v’Imoteinu the land of our ancestors;
I am a Zionist because: Israel is Eretz Muvtachat the land promised by God to Abraham and to his descendants – and you and I are heirs to that promise;
I am a Zionist because: Israel is Eretz M’nuchateinu a place of rest and refuge for my people in times of oppression and strife;
I am a Zionist because: Israel is Eretz M’kor Yitziruteinu the source of Jewish creativity and originality;
I am a Zionist because: Israel is Eretz Kibbutz Galuyoteinu the place of ingathering the exiles of our people;
I am a Zionist because: I feel the obligation of Zika – to be connected to Israel no matter where I live or travel;
I am a Zionist because: I feel the obligation of T’micha – to support Israel even when I disagree with this or that government’s policies;
I am a Zionist because: I feel the obligation of Sh’mira – to express care and to show concern for Israel in times of suffering and in times of prosperity;
I am a Zionist because: Israel is Eretz Tikvateinu the place towards which our ancestors, for centuries, directed their fondest hopes and most fervent prayers, the spiritual center of the Jewish universe;
I am a Zionist because: Israel is Eretz Kedushateinu the home of our sacred tradition – our sacred history and our sacred destiny;
I am a Zionist because: Israel is Artzi my land – despite its faults and foibles, despite its mistakes and missteps, despite the shortcomings of some of its citizens, some of its laws, some of its leaders;
I am a Zionist because: Israel is Ereetz Zavat Chalav uD’vash the land flowing with milk and honey – the milk of physical sustenance and the honey of spiritual inspiration – the milk of justice and the honey of compassion;
I am a Zionist because: I am a Jew.
As a Zionist, I feel compelled to speak about Israel and about Zionism because I sense, in the American Jewish community, a growing disaffection towards Israel. And as a liberal Zionist I feel compelled to speak about Israel now because I see the State of Israel of my dreams fading away and being replaced by a regime that is dangerous, that is threatening the essence of what I imagine the Jewish State ought to be. I feel compelled to speak about Israel tonight because of everything that I’ve already said about being a Zionist – because my vision for the Jewish State is aspirational and hopeful – even though Israel’s current government is leading the country away from that vision, away from democracy, away from decency, away from justice, away from righteousness, away from the highest hopes of the State’s founders.
The prophet Micah articulated a vision for Israel’s future. He wrote: V’hayah b’acharit Hayamim It shall come to pass, in the end of days, that the mountain of the house of God shall be established as the highest mountain, and raised above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. Then the many peoples shall say: L’chu v’na-aleh el har Adonai Come, let us go up to the mountain of Adonai, to the house of the God of Jacob. And they shall say: Teach us Your ways, that we may walk in Your paths Ki MiTziyon teytzey Torah uD’var Adonai MiYerushalayim For out of Zion shall go forth Torah and the word of Adonai from Jerusalem.”
Micah imagines Israel at the center of the Jewish world (if not the center of the whole world) – a place of pilgrimage and habitation. But he also imagines Israel as a source of inspiration for the entire world – a beacon of light and hope.
When the State of Israel was founded, 75 years ago, then Prime Minister David Ben Gurion also had a vision of Israel – as a Jewish and Democratic State. Ben Gurion’s lofty vision is articulated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence which says (in part): “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…”
I share with you, on this Yom Kippur Eve, the vision of Micah and the vision of Ben Gurion – not just because they are an interesting bit of history but because I imagine that they could be our vision as well – and because I think that we need inspired vision. The attack on democracy in Israel, and in many other countries around the world, is a sign of the brokenness of our time. And we Jews know that when we see brokenness, we are called to do repair. That’s what we mean when we sing before the open ark: L’takein Olam B’malchut Shaddai. I believe that the mission of the Jewish people is L’takein Olam B’malchut Shaddai. The destiny of the Jewish people is L’takein Olam B’malchut Shaddai to repair and improve the world, establishing the sovereignty of God.
The Jewish tactical plan for Tikkun Olam, for bringing repair and redemption to the world, requires a collaborative partnership of Jews worldwide.
The Jewish tactical plan for Tikkun Olam, for bringing redemption to the world, is a dual one: on the one hand (in ways that we already know well) Tikkun Olam means working right here to make the world better; and on the other hand (in ways that we might not yet have thought about) Tikkun Olam means creating an ideal – laboring to make the State of Israel an exemplary society – not simply a place where Jews can find refuge, but a shining beacon to the world – a beacon of ethical and righteous living. Israel is the only place in the world where it could be possible to shape a State and a society based on the highest ideals of Jewish tradition.
That is the aspiration. And yet, today there is a battle raging for the soul of the Jewish State. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been waging that battle in peaceful protests every Saturday night for more than eight months. They are protesting the current government’s systematic attempts to dismantle democracy in Israel. They are protesting the bigotry and racism and misogyny and homophobia and hatred of some of the current government ministers and K’nesset members. They are protesting the attempt to impose one form of Jewish observance upon the entire Israeli society. This sacred protest is being undertaken by (among others) our sisters and brothers in the Israeli Reform Movement. They are engaged in the daunting task of trying to shape the soul of the Jewish State in accordance with the highest ideals of our prophets and sages and in accordance with the lofty vision of the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel.
Make no mistake: What happens there affects us here, whether we realize and acknowledge it or not. When one part of the Jewish people hurts, then the entire Jewish people suffers. And so, I believe that it is our obligation as Reform Jews to engage in this protest as well. We must speak up and speak out for the values we cherish because we have a stake in the battle for the soul of the Jewish State. We can begin to fulfill that obligation by becoming members of ARZA (the Association of Reform Zionists of America) which in turn financially and ideologically supports our colleagues in the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and Israel Religious Action Center. We can also fulfill our obligation by visiting Israel not only to see the sites but also to meet and get to know Israelis who are dedicated to the same Jewish and democratic ideals as are we. And we can fulfill our obligation by speaking up and speaking out to every Jewish leader we know to say that it is important to us for Israel to be Jewish and Democratic.
Our collective task is to work to bring the modern State of Israel closer and closer to that aspirational vision. And if we are successful in moving the State of Israel closer toward becoming an exemplary society – a shining beacon to the world of ethical and righteous living – we, too, will be strengthened by its success and we will be reinvigorated in our ongoing struggle to repair and improve the world.
On this Yom Kippur Eve I appeal to you to join with me to work to bring to fruition the words of the prophet Micah: V’hayah b’acharit Hayamim It shall come to pass, in the end of days, that the mountain of the house of God shall be established as the highest mountain, and raised above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it. Then the many peoples shall say: L’chu v’na-aleh el har Adonai Come, let us go up to the mountain of Adonai, to the house of the God of Jacob. And they shall say: Teach us Your ways, that we may walk in Your paths. For out of Zion shall go forth Torah and the word of Adonai from Jerusalem Ki MiTziyon teytzey Torah uD’var Adonai MiYerushalayim.”
Ken Y’hi Ratzon!