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Israel: Awesome, thrilling, and inspiring!

Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro
Rosh Hashanah 5768
September 13, 2007

Once upon a time there was a Chasidic Rebbe who had two sons. The boys used to amuse themselves by playing a game they called “rebbe and disciple.” Aaron, the five year old, asked Elisha, the seven year old, what penance was appropriate for having forgotten to say the blessing for an apple. Elisha (pretending he was the rebbe) replied as he imagined his father might, “For forty days recite a special prayer after anything you eat.” “You didn’t do it right,” little brother Aaron scolded. “Of course, I did,” Elisha insisted. “I’ve listened when a disciple asked daddy the same question and I answered just as he did.”

Aaron replied, “I also listened, but you forgot something. Daddy always sighs before he answers.”

…And so it is for us when we talk about Israel this morning.

Even as we make preparations to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary, we have to sigh.

Last summer’s war in Lebanon was very close to a mistake. The Winograd Commission, which was formed in Israel to evaluate the war, delivered a scathing indictment of the war a few months ago. We’re told that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made up his mind to go to war “hastily, despite the fact that no detailed military plan was submitted to him.” Olmert’s goals were “overly ambitious and not feasible.” The army’s chief of staff “failed in his duties…and exhibited flaws in professionalism, responsibility, and judgment.”

And, of course, sadly, tragically, the three kidnapped Israeli soldiers whose rescue was the ostensible purpose of the war have still not been saved. Beyond that, for the long term, the notion that Israel’s army always knows what to do has failed. That may augur some trouble when it comes to dealing with Israel’s outside enemies, but it also raises domestic questions. You see, part of Israel’s sense of self has to do with its pride in the military. Tzahal (the Israeli Defense Force) is always supposed to win. But that didn’t happen in Lebanon, and losing that sense of certainty and pride in the army gives everyone in Israel much, much pause for thought.

We need to sigh about Israel because her political leaders haven’t got a sure sense of where to go. It’s become clear too that some of Israel’s settlements on the West Bank have been built on land privately owned and, one might therefore say, land stolen from Arabs. In a related matter, a few weeks ago a small group of Orthodox rabbis advised Orthodox soldiers not to obey official army orders and not to remove settlers from homes in illegal West Bank settlements.

Finally, scandals of ethical and sexual behavior have gone right up to the office of Israel’s president who was forced to resign this summer. You can’t help but sigh when you contemplate the problems Israel faces this Rosh Hashanah.

Daniel Gordis, an American rabbi who made aliyah several years ago, captured the spirit of Israel in an article on the occasion of Yom Ha-Atzmaut …Israel Independence Day last May.

Gordis said, “For a few days, I thought that perhaps I was [remembering incorrectly.] But as the days after Passover continued to flow by, it was clear. Something was different. In years past, almost as soon as Pesach ended, the country would be festooned in blue and white. Israeli flags fluttered from the windows of cars and hung from the porches of buildings throughout the city. [Yom Ha-Atzmaut was coming!]

Not this year, though…Relative to what there was a few years ago, and even last year, there’s almost nothing. The flags are gone.”

But here’s the remarkable thing. When 36 members and friends of Sinai went to Israel this summer, we were not overwhelmed or saddened. We didn’t sigh. In fact, a week after the trip, when I e-mailed the group members and asked them to record some thoughts about the trip, here are some of the adjectives which came back to me: awesome, thrilling, dramatic, amazing, and incredible.

We were a mixed group: Some of us were as old as 90; some as young as 12. Some had been to Israel before; most were first time visitors. Some were Jewish; some were not. Some brought lots of background to the trip; others were novices.

But something happens when you visit Israel. You can find better beaches in the Caribbean. You can find taller mountains in the Rockies. You can find better restaurants in Paris. It’s not the length or width of Israel that gets you. It’s the depth. It’s the story.

Awesome, thrilling, and incredible….Israel is just plain inspiring.

Like that Rosh Hashanah apple that glistens in the autumn sun, Israel knocks you for a loop.

Actually, I can taste it as I visualize it. I can picture Machane Yehudah, the open air market in Jerusalem that runs maybe four square blocks. The place is teeming with people who go from one booth to another sampling 75 varieties of cheese, 50 varieties of olives, fish of 15 sorts, fruits of every kind, and fresh-baked breads, rolls, and pastries.

Picture not one but ten stalls piled high with hot loaves of challah that shine under the lights. The challahs are next to what they call “pockets,” which are Middle Eastern croissants stuffed with mushrooms or cheese or spinach. And next to the “pockets” my favorite. Melt-in-your-mouth (to die for) chocolate rugelach. Rachel Ray and Emeril Lagasse, eat your hearts out!

But you don’t go to Israel for the food, although you do get to Machane Yehudah by walking the streets of Jerusalem. And here’s something you don’t find in most American cities where our streets are called Main Street, State, Mulberry, Chestnut, or Elm.

In Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel, the streets have names with character.

For example, just walking from our hotel to Machane Yehudah involved a stroll through Jewish culture and the past.

Out of the hotel onto Sholom Aleichem street, named after the pre-eminent writer of Yiddish who wrote the stories on which Fiddler on the Roof was based. Onward to Bezalel Street named after the first artist mentioned in the Torah. After that head up to Shmuel Hanagid. Shmuel distinguished himself in Granada, Spain of the eleventh century where he was a linguist, scholar, soldier, and chief advisor in the royal court.

Take a left onto Ben Yehudah Street and your feet recall Eleazar ben Yehudah who took Hebrew, which had been relegated to prayer and study for centuries, and revived it as the modern language of 6 million Israelis today. Finally, make a turn onto Shiloh Street and you’re back in the Bible walking on a street that calls to mind the very first place in Israel where our ancestors set up a place to pray.

Walking the streets of Israel is an exercise in memory, geography, literature, religion, politics, and language. Something as simple as shopping for a peach draws you right through 30 centuries and 3 continents of Jewish meaning.

Speaking of time and space, being in Israel also touched us so strongly because of the connections across time and space. One of the young ladies in the group was set to become a Bat Mitzvah on Thursday morning, July 5. The travel agent and I made arrangements for the service to take place in a stone synagogue on the Golan Heights. Jews lived up there in the village of Katzrin 1500 years ago, and, for many years, they used this beautiful synagogue before it was destroyed by an earthquake as their place of worship and study So the reservation was made. We would stand on the exact stone floor our ancestors used so long ago, and we would say just about exactly the words they knew back then too.

We couldn’t do our service, however, without a Torah scroll, and the travel agent promised me from way back here in the USA that a Torah scroll would be there.

The night before the service, however, I wondered how a Torah would end up on the Golan Heights at 10:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning, and I wondered too what I would do if it was rolled to the wrong spot. Given the temperature of the hot sun, I couldn’t imagine our tour group waiting for 20 minutes while I rolled the scroll.

Lo and behold, no need for concern. The scroll was there at the gates to Katzrin when we arrived and it was also rolled to the right spot in the Torah. But here’s what touched me as I stood there in my shorts and T-shirt and I showed our Bat Mitzvah girl the scroll just to be sure she recognized her verses.

Seven days earlier she and I had stood at this very lectern in Massachusetts reading from our Sinai scroll. Now, we were 5000 miles away; I had opened a scroll I’d never seen with a history I didn’t know, and it didn’t matter. The words were the same. Our Bat Mitzvah girl chanted them in Israel precisely the way she had chanted them in Springfield.

One wide world; one Jewish world; one Jewish connection from Springfield, Hartford or Phoenix all the way over to Israel! Israel and the whole wide globe of Jewish community never fails to move me.

The very next night our group brushed up against that sense of Jewish wholeness when the sun set and we had Shabbat in Jerusalem. Here’s what makes that occasion so memorable: It’s the fact that Jerusalem actually becomes different on Friday and Saturday. Here in the Diaspora we may talk about how Jews observe Shabbat. We may talk about candles and quiet on the seventh day. But the honest truth is that all of us are hard-pressed to feel Shabbat in a Diaspora world that is so resolutely non-Jewish and so busy with restaurants, shopping, and movies on Friday and Saturday.

It’s different in Jerusalem.

I didn’t have to preach a sermon about the change of pace that happened Friday afternoon. It simply took place all around us. Shabbat happened. Jews slowed down. The cars on the streets disappeared. The buses stopped chugging.

Jewish wholeness – We weren’t a minority working to make Shabbat; we were part of the whole.

That’s why, when we sat down at our tables in the hotel’s large dining room, I didn’t think twice about leading our group in Shabbat songs and then the blessings. Everyone in the room was part of this Jewish moment anyway. It was as natural as breathing the air.

This is what happens when you are in Israel.

Plus you see sites that make Sturbridge or Williamsburg seem like history for the novice. There is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is really four churches in one, where Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried. There is the Western Wall, which used to be the only part of the Second Temple Jews could visit for 2000 years. Now circumstances have changed and archeologists have dug down to bedrock to reveal hundreds of feet of what was the holy Temple in Jerusalem and what was, by all accounts, one of the architectural wonders of the ancient world.

Step over to Caesarea where King Herod built one of the largest ports on the Mediterranean Sea 2100 years ago. Look at the remains of the mammoth amphitheater. Imagine the sound of the chariots sweeping around the stadium as thousands of people watched the spectacle.

Stand in Tel Aviv’s Independence Hall where, on May 14, 1948, David ben Gurion had the chutzpah to proclaim that, after 2000 years, there would be a sovereign Jewish country called Medinat Yisrael – The State of Israel.

Awesome, thrilling, incredible. Israel is inspiring.

But not perfect.

We’ve already talked about the domestic turmoil. You know how many challenges Israel faces as it turns 60.

And I have to be honest. As much as I adored almost every minute of our trip, I can’t forget the know-it-all server at one restaurant who breezed by us, didn’t listen to us, took her time serving us, and then completely botched our bill charging some VISA cards twice and others not at all. It was not a good moment for Israeli tourism, but, then again, who really came to Israel to eat?

I rather came to be nourished.

And this is what happens on a trip to Israel.

You are nourished because in Israel you encounter a place that is still being built. Israel is not so old that stories of how it was founded in 1948 only exist in books. You can see where it all happened; you can meet people who remember the moment and the drama.

Israel is not so old that living here has become routine.

Far from it, as the 60th anniversary approaches, Israelis will engage in a massive process of Cheshbon Hanefesh/Introspection asking questions of themselves that go to the core of Israel’s future.

They will ask questions and debate the meaning and shape of Zionism over and over because they know they are making history - and they are not done. In fact, they have only just begun.

Which is why we have an opportunity.

Some time today (before we go home for lunch) we can join Israel by purchasing an Israel Bond. The information is in your “What’s Happening” booklet and the appropriate envelopes with pencils are nearby too.

Besides that, as our own congregation makes plans to honor Israel’s anniversary year, there will be one or two specific projects Sinai can support. I’d like to see us make a $1000 gift to Kibbutz Lotan in the Negev which has several fascinating ecological projects. I’d also like to see us raise $1000 to support the wonderful work of the Reform synagogue outside Tel Aviv which our group visited in July. (More on those projects in the weeks to come.) I also hope soon to announce details for the next Sinai trip to Israel tentatively scheduled for March 2009.

Before that, however, you know the financial support is critical. Investing in Israel with real dollars actually trumps simply feeling good. Nevertheless, it is also critical for our own Jewish selves that we do feel good about the sovereign Jewish state called Israel.

For 2000 years such a state was a dream.

For 2000 years such a reality was beyond imagining.

That is why Israel at its very best never ceases to move me and nourish me. To be honest, I’m happy to simply walk down a street in Tel Aviv and order a cookie in Hebrew. Something as simple as that captures the miracle of Israel in our time.

Or maybe the words of Marla Bennett, a graduate of UC Berkeley, can sum it all up. Marla came to Israel on a Jewish education fellowship in 2001. It was not an easy time (not anything like the much calmer Israel we experienced this summer.) In those days, the Intifada with its suicide bombings was raging. Ultimately, Marla herself died in an attack on Hebrew University’s cafeteria. But weeks before that, in a letter she wrote to her parents, these were her feelings. I think they describe the Israel every one of us who went to Israel will gladly tell you about.

She wrote, “I’ve been living in Israel for over a year and a half, and my favorite thing to do here is to go to the grocery store. I know, not the most exciting response from someone living in Jerusalem…But going grocery shopping here – deciphering the Hebrew labels – as well as picking up my dry cleaning, standing in long lines at the bank, and waiting in the hungry mob at the bakery – means that I live here. I am not a tourist; I deal with Israel and all its confusion, joy and pain every day.

“It’s also been difficult. Just a month after I arrived the Intifada began. My time here has been dramatically affected by the security situation. I am cautious about where I go and when; I avoid crowded areas and alter my routine when I feel threatened. But I also feel energized by the opportunity to support Israel during a difficult period.

“There is no other place in the world where I would rather be right now. I have a front row seat for the history of the Jewish people.”

That’s how you feel when you visit Israel.

That’s how I feel when I realize that I’m alive as Israel turns 60 years old this year.

A front row seat for the history of the Jewish people!

What a miracle. What a blessing.

Am Yisrael Chai – The people of Israel is alive! May it always be so!

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