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Good/Not Good: Reflections in the Aftermath of War

(Kol Nidrei 5775/2014)

I want to tell you that I have been advised by newspapers, commentators, rabbis, Jews, and academics, not to give this sermon.  I have heard that some rabbinic colleagues will not give the sermon I am about to give because they do not believe it is what Jews wish to hear about on the holiest day of the year.

Since the summer, I have witnessed my colleagues on the right and on the left be excoriated for speaking about what I will speak about, and I even heard a joke about it this week:

A reporter asks a rabbi to sum up in one word what she thinks about Israel.

Rabbi thinks a moment, and says “good.”  Reporter says, thanks rabbi, that’s great –can you expand on that a little to 2 words, just two words on Israel.

The rabbi is quiet and then says, “not good.”  Amazing what makes its way into the humor lexicon, right?

Jokes and articles aside, here is what I know. Tonight as we begin to strip away the layers upon layers of protective coating we have amassed during this year, at the heart of the matter we have some pretty painful stuff to look at.  It was a very hard summer, and in a number of ways that really matter, it is not over yet.  If you are like me, you may be experiencing a confusion of emotions in the aftermath of the Israel/Hamas war.  But despite it all, even the most recent presentations at the UN - I am determined to wrestle towards a blessing.

I am not an expert in foreign relations nor shuttle diplomacy.  I am not a political bobble head that offers Monday morning post game analysis, and I am not a consultant to the US or Israeli government on matters of national security.  I am a rabbi. I am a zionist. I am a Jew with a long history of loving and wrestling with Israel.  And so on this night that is what I must speak about.

It is likely that not all of you will agree with everything I say. That is ok.

My hope is that at some moment tonight something I say will resonate with you, make you think – especially if you disagree.  To sanctify something in Jewish tradition is to discuss it, and although in some places it might be toxic to do so, I’d like to believe we can rise to the occasion here.

When my family returned from Israel this summer on the eve of the war,

I was awash in feelings. Grief, anger, fear – they all layered on top of one another, and I tried to sort out then, what I was feeling, why I was feeling it, and I even imagined this night and what I might say.

I believe that Israel has the right to exist, and I believe that what goes along with this right, is the recognition of the rights of others.  I also believe we Jews have an ancient and historic relationship to the land of Israel, and what goes along with this belief is that there are others who are also intimately linked to this land.

The two statements are facts.  They are not feelings.  Israel must continue to have the courage and strength to defend itself when attacked, and Israel must also strive for justice for all the inhabitants of the region.  I have to believe it is possible to do both.

The feelings came all at once, but each filled my heart until it was bursting.  Israel became a house of mourning when Eyal, Naftali, and Gilad were discovered to have been murdered by Hamas. Then, only a day after the boys were buried I mourned the burning alive of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian youth abducted by Israeli extremists in retaliation.

Hundreds of Israelis, including many American rabbis visiting and studying in Israel, went to the family mourning tent.  The families of Muhammed Abu Khdeir and Naftali Fraenkel reached out to one another – and inspired so many people not to let the extreme voices speak for everyone.  If we want Palestinians to condemn fascism, we too must offer solidarity, compassion, and dignity even in the face of tragedy.

Rockets were launched day after day, the sirens wailed, and the IDF began air attacks and a ground war to respond in self defense.  Israelis were running for shelter, and my friends would text and email that they were ok.  I was truly frightened for their safety.  I was obsessively checking social media, reading articles, and thought of little else.

In the first days of the war, despite IDF efforts to warn and prepare the people of Gaza, so many lives were lost.  The numbers of dead Palestinians rose exponentially, and it was painful to watch.  I grieved then and I still grieve for the destruction of life, of business, of people and for how long it will take for Gaza to recover.

I couldn’t stop listening to Israeli Army radio on my phone, the red alert app would sound, interupting the music, but all I had to do was silence the phone.  I didn’t have to quickly gather 4 sleeping children in the middle of the night, run down 3 flights of stairs, and secure everyone in a safe room in less than 90 seconds.

As the intricate web of tunnels built by Hamas and so heavily financed with money that should have been spent on bomb shelters, fortified rooms in schools and hospitals, and maybe even some security measure like the iron dome were discovered, Israeli soldiers began dying as they defended their country.

I grieved then and I still grieve for every soldier, the native Israelis and the lone soldiers from the US who led by example as they set out to destroy these terror tunnels, and gave their lives in defense of Israel.  They are not martyrs.  They are fathers, sons, husbands, brothers, and friends.

I grieved then and I still grieve for the fact that Israel might have been able to broker a peace and end the occupation years ago, but has not been able to do so, and as a result we are still searching for answers to the ongoing conflict, something to stem the ongoing flow of blood and tears.

On top of the grief came anger.  Anger at how quickly the world turned this war of self defense into a war crime.  Anger at the media for coverage seemed to imply that if only there were more dead Israelis, they could get behind the whole “self defense” conviction.

It was nearly impossible to take in the loss of life and the real trapped nature of the Palestinian existence in Gaza.  Trapped by geography, trapped by their choice of Hamas as their leaders, and trapped by their historic choice of violence over diplomacy.  I am not immune to the criticism of the IDF or Prime Minister Netanyahu’s mission and exit strategy.  But when I found myself explaining the difference between a tragic mistake and a war crime against humanity, I could barely hold it together.

In between the grief and the anger came the very clear understanding and fear that anti-semitism is alive and well.  Anti semitism masquerading as anti zionism in Belgium, England, Austria, France.  I am not an alarmist, and I don’t thrive on crisis as a means to engage, but even I have felt the uncertainty that the nexxus of ISIS, Hamas, Iran, will have devastating effects on our future if there isn’t something done.

Underneath all of these emotions came the most pernicious of them all.

In utter disbelief I witnessed the tragedy that we Jews couldn’t talk with one another about the conflict.  What does it mean when we hear about the deaths of innocent children and we leap to argue instead of to weep?

We cannot allow legitimate anger and frustration to turn us vengeful, to rejoice at the suffering of others.

Social media was aflame with incendiary responses to facebook posts, unfriending people with whom you disagree, opinions, and assumptions.

A powerful example that succeeded in undermining the noise of contention was a short post written by an Israeli writer, Noa Lutsky.  She wrote:

"The fact that I'm thinking of the soldiers doesn't mean that I'm not thinking of the children,

The fact that I'm thinking of the children doesn't mean that I'm not thinking of the people of Sderot.

The fact that I'm thinking of the people of Sderot doesn't mean I'm not terrified of right wing incitement.
The fact that I'm terrified of right wing incitement doesn't mean I'm not opposed to Hamas. 
The fact that I'm opposed to Hamas doesn't mean I'm not in pain for the innocents in Gaza. 
The fact that I'm in pain for the innocents in Gaza doesn't mean I'm not choking from the thought of the innocents in Southern Israel.
It all just means that I'm in pain from every angle.

Pain that is unbearable.
It all just means that something must change.

Everything, so this monster of a war will die of starvation.
(and the fact that I'm desperate doesn't mean that I'm not forcing myself to believe)."

In this room tonight, we are as diverse as we are numerous.  I believe, however, as my friend and colleague Rabbi Sharon Brous wrote this summer – “there can be unity without uniformity.”  The exodus from the despair and degredation of war, must come from the merits of our collective action.

This is where my hope resides.  I believe that even though peace tarries – even with all the fatalism that exists, im kol zeh ani ma’amin.  I believe, although without perfect faith, that being advocates for the Israel we want to see flourish, invites us to continue to take risks for peace, to stand with Israel in order to agitate, organize, support, and hold dear the prophetic vision of the land, where enemies find ways to live together.

Amos Oz said it beautifully when he wrote: “ I believe in a Zionism that faces facts, that exercises power with restraint, that sees the Jewish past as a lesson, but neither as a mystical imperitive nor as an insidious nightmare; that sees the Palestinian Arabs as Palestinian Arabs, and neither as camouflaged reincarnation of the ancient tribes of Canaan nor as a shapeless mass of humanity waiting for us to form it as we see fit: a Zionism also capable of seeing itself as others may see it; and finally, a Zionism that recognizes both the sprititual implications and the political consequences of the fact that this small tract of land is the homeland of two peoples fated to live facing each other, willy-nilly, because no God and no angel will come to judge between right and right.  The lives of both, the lives of all of us, depend on the hard, tortuous and essential process of learning to know each other in the curious landscape of the beloved country.”

Yes. Yes. Yes.

“We will yet learn to live together

between the groves of olive trees
children will live without fear
without borders, without bomb-shelters
on graves grass will grow,
for peace and love, 
one hundred years of war
but we have not lost hope. 

And all will be good...”

Od nil'mad lichyot beyachad
bein churshot atzei zeitim
yeladim yich'yu bli pachad
bli g'vulot, bli mik'latim
al kvarim yifrach ha'esev
leshalom ve'ahava
me'ah shanim shel cherev
ve'od lo avdah hatikvah

yihyeh tov
yihyeh tov, ken
lif'amim ani nishbar
az halailah
ho halailah
itach ani nish'ar –

It will be good, we pray, even if sometimes it is not good and we despair.

May the coming year bring an end to grief, anger, fear, and isolation, and may hope prevail.

Gmar hatima tova – May our journey be inspired.


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