Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Praying for Israel

My Israel blog has been quiet the last few weeks because I have not been in Israel. I had the pleasure of spending the High Holidays with Beth El Synagogue in Durham, North Carolina where I will become the rabbi full-time on July 1, 2011. It was quite a contrast (and quite exhausting) to travel from the world of Jerusalem to the world of North Carolina and back again. It was wonderful to be in North Carolina in our future home, and it is wonderful to be back in Jerusalem as the city bustles with people finishing Sukkah decorations, shopping and cooking for holiday meals, and packing the cars for tiyulim around the country.

While at Beth El, I encountered a community that, like much of the American Jewish community, struggles to engage in productive dialogue about Israel. I was reminded of a teaching by the Sfat Emet who explains that the experience of Egypt was not just a physical exile, but an exile of language. That is why we are taught, “whoever increases the telling of our exodus from Egypt is to be praised,” because speech is linked with redemption. On Yom Kippur, I chose to address our community’s struggle to be in productive dialogue about Israel by trying to articulate how our community’s different approaches to Israel must, and do, represent a shared passion for Israel, something of which we can all be proud. While my remarks on Yom Kippur were addressed to Beth El Synagogue in Durham, I hope they will ring true for many congregations and communities in American Jewish life. Enjoy.


A story that was aired on CNN a while back. They heard there was an old Jewish man who had been going to the Western Wall to pray, twice a day, every day, for decades. The CNN reporter goes to the Kotel with a camera crew and there he was! She has a camera crew and they watch him pray and after about 45 minutes she approaches him for an interview and says, “I'm Rebecca Smith from CNN. Sir, how long have you been coming to the Wall and praying?”

“For about 50 years,” the man says.

“50 years!! That's amazing!” says Smith. “What do you pray for?”

“I pray for peace,” the man replies. “Peace between the Christians, Jews and the Muslims. I pray for all the hatred to stop and I pray for all our children to grow up in safety and friendship.”

“That’s a beautiful prayer,” she says. “How do you feel after doing this for 60 years?”

“Like I'm talking to a wall.”


Before we say the prayer for Israel, I have an observation about our congregation to share with you: there is some “diversity of opinion” about Israel. I know, I know. You are amazed at my powers of observation. I can already tell that as we say the prayer for the State of Israel, not everyone will be thinking and feeling the same thing, even if the words we say are the same.

Some people this year will be angry at what is wrong with the state of Israel – and there are things that are wrong with the Israel. There is something wrong when, as I wrote about in my blog, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, one of the great halakhic minds of our age and the spiritual leader of the Shas party which was part of Rabin’s government during the Oslo process, calls for the death of the Palestinian leader and death to all Palestinians. As my teacher, Rabbi David Wolpe and others have pointed out “there is something wrong when a woman takes a sefer Torah near the Western Wall and she is arrested and dragged into a police car still clutching the Torah…There is something wrong when 100,000 ultra Orthodox take to the streets to deny the Supreme Court’s rulings about education,” or when the government of Israel refuses to remove settlers who disobey the law, or when the infrastructure of villages comprised of Arab Israeli citizens is unfairly left in disrepair. Some people will say the prayer for Israel, angry at all that is not right with Israel, because for two thousand years we prayed for a return to Zion and a state of our own where we could live out the ideals of the Jewish people and the Jewish tradition. Israel represents those ideals and when there are things that are wrong with Israel, it pains them, and it should pain us too.

Some people will say the prayer for Israel with hope, hope that after nearly two decades of false starts and dashed dreams, that, maybe, finally, the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians that continued this week will bear fruit and that an agreement might be reached in the year to come. Hope that finally the dream of two States, a Jewish state and a Palestinian state, can be achieved, and we can stop sending our children off to war. I dream about how beautiful that dream could be. After a devastating earthquake hit Haiti in January of this year, Israel was able to establish the first field hospital from 10,000 miles away, before America could from just a few hundred miles. Israel donated more food and aid than countries several times its size and wealth.  If Israel could do that, imagine what could Israel could do for the world if so many of its resources were not squandered on having to maintain a standing army and defend itself from nations who desire its destruction. Some people will say the prayer for the State of Israel with hope that perhaps this year will be the year when those dreams can come true.

Some people will say the prayer for Israel with fear, fear that we will again be betrayed. Time Magazine recently ran an absolutely absurd cover which featured a Magen David with the line, “why Israel doesn’t care about peace” when poll after poll after poll has shown Israelis desperately want peace and are willing to make concessions and sacrifices to achieve it – most especially because Israeli parents don’t send their 18 year olds to university; they send their children to the army and stay up at night with worry (to read an insightful column on the anti-Semitic overtones of the Time magazine cover story, go to  Some will pray for Israel with fear, afraid that there is no partner for peace, afraid that we are refusing to learn lessons from our past, afraid that the Palestinian leadership won’t actually recognize Israel’s existential right to permanently exist as a Jewish state, and that negotiations and dialogue will be answered (again) with yet another round of violence and bloodshed, not peace and justice.

I know you know that as we pray for Israel, each person in our congregation will attach different thoughts and feelings to this prayer. That is a strength, not a weakness. It is something to celebrate, not hide. Because it shows that we care, that Israel matters, that our love is deep, if complicated. As we pray, this week, and every week, for Israel, I pray for our congregation that Israel never become merely a political issue, that it never be only a matter of the head and not the heart. Israelis are our brothers and sisters; family is never easy :-) which is why we pray :-). God help us :-)