Everything is Broken – Yom Kippur 5782

Of all of Bob Dylan’s songs, the one that I think best captures what Judaism is all about is “Everything is Broken,” from his 1989 album Oh Mercy.  It goes like this:

Broken lines, broken strings,

Broken threads, broken springs,

Broken idols, broken heads,

People sleeping in broken beds

Ain’t no use jiving

Ain’t no use joking

Everything is broken1

Seth Rogovoy, author of the excellent book, Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet describes “Everything is Broken” as “swamp rock meets Lurianic Kabbalah,”2 referring to that influential strain of 16th-century Jewish mysticism developed by Rabbi Isaac Luria, who re-imagined the Jewish doctrines of Creation, God’s role in the world, and the relationship between humankind and God.  His postulates continue to shape Jewish thought to this day.

Born in Jerusalem in 1534, and raised by a rich uncle from Cairo after his father died, young Isaac Luria showed early promise as a student of rabbinic literature.  Before long, Luria began to dabble in mysticism—the secret wisdom that spiritual seekers consult as they yearn to experience God—and immersed himself in studying the Zohar, the 13th century cornerstone of the Jewish mystical canon.  

It is even believed that Luria may have secluded himself in private meditation for seven years in a cottage on the banks of the Nile.  Returning to Eretz Yizrael in 1569, Luria migrated to the mountaintop city of Tzefat and filled a vacancy as the Jewish community’s chief teacher and spiritual guide.   

Although Luria himself wrote next to nothing, and died at age 38, he still managed to transmit his ideas through lectures to a dozen or so disciples, who in turn taught them to their select disciples, and so on.

Put simply, Lurianic Kabbalah starts with the premise that “everything is broken” and argues outward from there.  It is significant that Luria’s ideas entered Jewish thought a little over 75 years—or about three generations—after the greatest trauma in Jewish history since the destruction of the ancient temple:  the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. 

Luria and his followers devised a spiritual ideology that responded directly to the suffering of Jewish people at the time.  Luria’s premise, that “brokenness” is baked into the fabric of existence, centered hardship, tragedy, pain, and evil in the world—an evil made manifest to the hundreds of thousands of Jews forced, under the eye of the Inquisition, to convert to Christianity at swordpoint, or who were killed on the spot, or driven, with little more than the clothes on their backs, into permanent exile.  

Ultimately, Rabbi Luria’s revolutionary vision of Creation serves to explain the prevalence of human suffering, and also points the way to how we live so as to affirm the potential—despite the brokenness around us and within us—for goodness, meaning, and for God’s loving presence to enter our lives and enter the world.  

I assume that Luria’s teachings are best known to us through the term Tikkun Olam, the “repair of the world,” the word “repair” implying that the world is broken.  Since the Holocaust, Tikkun Olam has grown to become a prominent theme in Jewish life, particularly in Reform Judaism, where it is associated with social action and social justice.  

But for Luria, Tikkun Olam happens at the cosmic level, affecting all time and space.   

Luria’s core teaching—and this is a metaphor for all of existence, so bear with me—goes like this:  

In the beginning, everything was God; there was (and is) nothing that is not God.  

And yet, in order to allow for Creation, God had to perform an act of self-contraction.  If you’ve ever sucked in your lungs in order to let someone else pass by you in a narrow corridor (as I admit to having done several times, especially during Covid), that’s the idea.  

Or there’s the lovely metaphor offered by Anna Calamaro, a Reform rabbi-in-training who is also a doula, assisting women in pregnancy and childbirth and infusing their journeys with Jewish spirituality.  She observes that the Kabbalistic term for divine contraction is “tzimtzum,”  a word that “conjures images of women having contractions as they give birth….  [C]ontractions prepare us for more.”3  God contracted a part of the Eternal Being in order to make room for all that was yet to be, in order to give birth.  So the Creation of the world was not only positive; it was also negative:  in creating the world, something of God contracted, went into exile.  

The Torah tells us that in the beginning, “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”4  In Luria’s version, Divine light began to flow from the now-contracted source, into the empty space, filling vessels God had made to contain the light; but the light proved too strong, the vessels too fragile, and they shattered.  The vessels and their light scattered across Creation.  Through the violence of the shattering, darkness and evil entered the world.  

Instead of light filling Creation from end to end, we now walk about a world mottled with light and dark, good and evil, the whole and the broken:  signs of God’s Presence sometimes evident, sometimes obscured, often hiding in plain sight. 

And here we are, a little more than 75 years—or about three generations—after the greatest trauma in Jewish history since the expulsion from Spain, that is, of course, the Shoah, and Luria’s vision still offers a powerful lens for understanding the world and our role in it:  to be God’s partners in the work of Tikkun, or repair.    

But Luria in fact spoke of two kinds of brokenness and thus two kinds of repair:  Tikkun Ha-Olam, the repair of the world outside us, and Tikkun Ha-Nefesh, the repair of the soul inside us.  The two are inextricably intertwined:  we cannot do one without affecting the other.  

After all, if, as Luria proposes, everything is the unfolding of Divinity, then Divinity exists both outside us and within us.  Even more, God’s presence is accessible to us not only through that which is beautiful and whole but also through all that is fractured and hurting.

Broken bodies, broken bones,

Broken voices on broken phones

Take a deep breath, feel like you’re chokin’

Everything is broken

What Dylan is driving at, what Luria means, is that not one of us is whole, none of us unbroken, in this battered and beat-up world.  

And yet we, human beings, unique among the wonders of Creation, retain a marvelous capacity to dream, to hope, to imagine—something better, for our world, for ourselves.  

Judaism capitalizes on this capacity in its insistence that history must move from degradation to exaltation5, misery to redemption; that moral progress is not only possible but essential; that what we experience as broken we also can mend; that we were put on this earth in order to leave it better.

The human ability to visualize perfection, and the Jewish demand to pursue perfection, is both a blessing and a curse.  

A blessing, in that it provides direction, purpose, forward motion; in that it insists that we not succumb to despair no matter how bleak the circumstances—and we Jews have known more than a few bleak circumstances.  

A curse, in that the pursuit of perfection depletes us, sets us up for unrealistic expectations, prevents us from accepting the brokenness of the world, and, especially, the brokenness within us, as innate features, as part of God’s design—the whole and the broken woven throughout the fabric of Creation like the primordial light threaded through the darkness.

“The Thai Buddhist master Ajahn Chah was so revered that when he died, about a million people came to pay their respect to his work and his legacy.  Even the Thai royal family came,” reports Anam Thubten, a Tibetan monk and one of Ajahn Chah’s many admirers.

“One time, when he was alive, somebody brought him a gift of an expensive antique cup.  It was supposed to have been made in China during the Ming dynasty.  He picked up the cup in front of everybody and said, ‘This cup is already broken.’  Because it is already broken, we can let go of our attachment to it in case someday it breaks, which it will.  At the same time, we can enjoy it, and we can enjoy drinking from it.”

“In many ways, everything is already broken.  We are all broken,” the monk concludes, before adding, with a wry smile, “unbroken too.”6  

This Zen paradox also lies at the heart of the Lurianic vision of the world and our place in it.  For the Buddhist, though, the way through the brokenness, the path to enlightenment, begins and ends with awareness and acceptance.  The idea is to let go of attachment.   

For the Jew, an additional challenge must be negotiated:  not only to see the brokenness without and within, not only to acknowledge and accept and affirm, but also to mend, to heal, to change.  For the Jew, our work in cultivating awareness of the brokenness in the world and, especially, the brokenness in our selves, in our souls, is the catalyst for change.  

Acknowledging our failings, accepting our limitations, affirming our soul-brokenness:  these are the first steps on the road to a more compassionate life, for ourselves and for the world.  

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, better known as the Chofetz Chayim after his magnum opus, an influential work of Jewish ethical wisdom published in 1873, came to the same realization:  

“I set out to try to change the world, but I failed,” he said.  “So I decided to scale back my efforts and only try to influence the Jewish community of Poland, but I failed there, too.  So I targeted the community in my hometown, but I achieved no greater success.   Then I gave… all my effort to changing my own family, and failed at that as well.  Finally, I decided to change myself, and that’s how I had such an impact on the Jewish world.”7 

Just days before going into lockdown, in March of 2020, Rabbi Levy and I traveled with our eighth grade students and parents to the Deep South on WRT’s annual Civil Rights Journey.  Stopping for a while in Montgomery, Alabama, we made a heartrending visit to the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice which is America’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, and African Americans humiliated by racial segregation. 

Set on a six-acre site, the memorial features over 800 steel monuments engraved with the names of lynching victims, one massive column for each county where a lynching took place.  There are more than 4,400 names.  Like visiting Yad Va-Shem in Jerusalem, or the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, you leave such a place transformed—not just aghast but awake, aware that you share in a shameful legacy; that you have inherited a profound responsibility; that you cannot just go back to “business as usual.”  

The poet Rilke described such a moment of transformation:  “…[H]ere,” he wrote, “there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.”8  

The work of addressing the world’s brokenness begins by seeing the brokenness within.  

It begins, “You must change your life.”  

Bryan Stevenson, the acclaimed public interest lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative which houses the Museum and Memorial, has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned.

He observes:

I guess I’d always known but never fully considered that being broken is what makes us human.  We all have our reasons.  Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.  Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.

We have a choice.  We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing.  Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our humanity.9

This, my friends, is the most Yom Kippur message I know:  we are all broken people in a broken world. 

Not one of us gets through this life without being hurt—scarred, even—by living.  Not one of us has come through even these eighteen months without something getting broken along the way:  A plan.  A hope.  An agreement.  A friendship.  An engagement.  A heart.  A reputation for being patient with our families.  A sense of being in charge of our own lives.  

And if, on this Yom Kippur, you are saying a Yizkor memorial prayer for a person you have loved, and who has died, then you know:  that hurt never really goes away; the wound never really closes—not all the way, maybe not at all.  The brokenness just finds a way to become integrated into the complex whole that is you.  

Acknowledging our brokenness is not an invitation to self-flagellation.  Our brokenness does not make us “less than,” any more than God’s tzimtzum or self-contraction made God any less God.  

We are still worthy of love—from others, from God, and yes, perhaps most of all, from ourselves.

And to say we are all broken is also not to negate the innumerable signs of life and beauty and progress all around us, and within us.  

This world is so magnificent and so heartbreaking.  We live amid intermingled light and shadow, majesty and pain, and our souls are internal mirrors of this external reality.  

“We are all broken, unbroken too,” as the monk teaches.  

Our souls are like the blasts of the shofar:  Tekiah, which is what we call in music a “whole note,” followed immediately by three short notes interrupted by silence, called Shevarim, whose name literally means “broken,” followed by Teruah, a discharge of jagged staccato blasts, followed at last by Tekiah Gedolah, a great whole note, a great healing note.  

They say these shofar blasts were first sounded at Sinai.10  When Moses came down from the mountain—tablets of stone in his hand, words inscribed thereon by the very finger of God—so they say—before he could even share the good news with the Israelites, his eye caught sight of his people frolicking around a golden calf, bowing down and worshipping an unholy idol.  Enraged, Moses hurled the tablets to the ground where they shattered at the foot of the mountain.11

After the calamity subsided, Moses went back up the mountain, to try again, to earn a second chance for his people.  The Rabbis say that this happened on Yom Kippur, day of second chances.12  

And so Moses went up, and carved two tablets anew, and returned to his people, and the story of our Jewish journey went on.

But what became of the broken pieces?  After all, they were, still, holy writ—inscribed, as we have said, by the very finger of God.  Surely, Moses could not have just left them scattered on the ground?

The Rabbis then teach that Moses gathered up all the broken fragments and placed them in the Holy Ark, together with the whole tablets13, and there—if you choose to believe it—they remain, to this day:  the whole and the broken, side by side, all of the pieces holy.  

And how very much like the human soul is that holy Ark.  That vessel with its whole and broken pieces all jumbled together.  

And how very much like the world—this wonderful and worrisome world, with all its beauty and all its baseness, all its splendor and all its suffering, and all of it, the ever-unfolding mystery of God.

Endnotes

1.  © 1989 by Special Rider Music.

2.  “Bob Dylan’s 10 Most Jewish Songs,” Forward, May 24, 2020.  https://forward.com/culture/447127/bob-dylans-10-most-jewish-songs/

3.  “14 Days of Silence” (blog post), At The Well, https://www.atthewellproject.com/blog//14-days-of-silence.

4.  Genesis 1:3.

5.  See Mishnah, Pesahim 10:4, which rules that in relating the story of the Exodus on Passover, the narrator is required to “begin with degradation and end with exaltation” (“מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח”).  

6.  Anam Thubten, Choosing Compassion: How to be of Benefit in a World that Needs our Love.  Boulder: Shambhala Publications, 2019.  p. 125.

7.  As quoted in Alan Morinis, Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar.  Boulder: Shambhala Publications, 2008, p. 16.

8.  Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (1908), translated by Stephen Mitchell.  The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.  New York: Random House, 1982. 

9.  Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: a Story of Justice and Redemption.  New York:  Spiegel & Grau, 2014. p. 289.

10.  See Exodus 19:13, 19:16, 20:15.

11.  Exodus 32:19.

12.  See RaSHI to Exodus 32:1 and 33:11.

13.  Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 14b. cf. also Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 8b.

A Tale of Two Abrahams – Rosh Ha-Shanah 5782

Oh, God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”

Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”

God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”

God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but

The next time you see me comin’ you better run”

Well Abe said, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”

God said, “Out on Highway 61” ( Bob Dylan, “Highway 61 Revisited,” Highway 61 Revisited.  © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc., renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music).

Like most midrash, Bob Dylan’s version of Akedat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac, takes some breathtaking liberties with the text, not least of which is to transpose the Akedah from Mount Moriah (now the Temple Mount in Jerusalem below which the Kotel, the Western Wall still stands) to Highway 61, the great American “Blues Highway” that runs north-south from the Duluth of Dylan’s childhood down through New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta.

But the real kicker is how, when God says to Abraham, “Kill me a son,” Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on.”

If only.  If only Abraham had said, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on.”  

Abraham, like most Biblical figures, is a complicated fellow.  He exhibits a kind of split personality:  equal parts moral hero and militant zealot; prophet on the one hand, extremist on the other.  

Consider Abraham’s virtues:  God calls unto him, Lech Lecha, “Go forth,” and he leaves his home by the Persian Gulf to settle a land of promise, a Holy Land (Genesis 11:31-12:7).  He rescues Lot, his schlemazel of a nephew, first when he’s taken hostage in a Canaanite tribal war (Ibid, 14:1-17), and again, when Abraham advocates on behalf of the innocent in the doomed cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?” Abraham demands (Ibid, 18:25).  He models Jewish hospitality, welcoming wayfarers to his tent, offering them food and drink, stooping before them to wash their feet (Ibid, 18:1-5).  He fathers a multitude of nations, progeny “as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand upon the seashore” (Ibid, 22:17).  In midrash he emerges the original iconoclast, smashing his father’s idols in the name of the one true God (See Bereshit Rabbah §38, and Tanna de-Bei Eliyahu, among others).

Taken together, Abraham becomes the paradigmatic moral hero of the Jewish tradition.  His legacy is embedded in Judaism’s demand for justice and compassion, humility and integrity.

Which is all well and good, unless you happen to be Abraham’s wife or child.  

Behind the closed door of his tent, Abraham comes across a different man—rough, intolerant, fanatical, even.  At the first sight of visitors, he barks orders at Sarah, “Quick!  Knead bread and bake cakes!” (Genesis 18:6).  He passes off his wife as his sister in the Egyptian court in order to save his own hide—all but giving his blessing to the Pharaoh and his lackeys to molest Sarah (Ibid, 12:10-20.  For a parallel narrative, see also Genesis 20:1-16.).  He casts out his son Ishmael, and the mother of his child, the concubine Hagar, to the wilderness, empty-handed save a loaf of bread and a skin of water (Ibid, 21:14).  

And today, Rosh Ha-Shanah, we meet once again this strange and strident Abraham, who hears a mysterious voice and willingly complies with its outrageous demand:  who gets up early in the morning so as not to wake Sarah, drags their sweet, sleepy boy out of bed, leaves the servants behind, journeys three days on foot, makes Isaac carry the firewood for his own sacrifice up the mountain, ties him to the altar, raises the knife without flinching, and refuses to lay it down until the angel of God implores:  “Abraham! Abraham!  Lay not your hand against the boy” (Genesis 22:1-12).

Imagine living with this Abraham.  After the Akedah, Abraham returns home alone; Sarah dies in the first verse of the next chapter, a broken woman with a broken heart; his castaway son Ishmael forever estranged; and Isaac, poor Isaac, fated to toil until the end of his days in the shadow of his father.  

But unlike his father, Isaac will have no great deeds associated with his name.  Isaac will be remembered, chiefly, for growing old and blind and—either willingly or unwittingly—participating in his son Jacob’s theft of a birthright and blessing owed to Esau, his twin brother and Isaac’s firstborn son (See Genesis Chapter 27).

All this, too, is the heritage of Abraham:  a legacy of family trauma inflicted by a man intoxicated with grandiose visions while staggeringly inattentive to the anguish of the women and children who share his tent, a toxic narcissist whose actions reverberated through successive generations.  

I think of this Abraham—these two Abrahams, really—the tzadik on the one hand and the tyrant on the other, and how hard it is to reconcile the two—and I can’t help but observe how uncannily they resemble the Israel of today, a split-personality Israel, an Israel that inspires me on the one hand and vexes me on the other, an Israel that stirs in me great admiration, as well as grave concern.   

I share with you these thoughts about Israel at a fraught time.  Recall the violence that erupted in May:  a two-week period marked by protests and police riot control, thousands of rockets fired on Israel by Hamas, Israeli counterstrikes targeting the Gaza Strip, and, most alarmingly, violent attacks carried out by Arab rioters and Jewish mobs, with beatings and looting and arson and even outright murder in the streets of Acco and Ramle and Lod and Haifa where Jews and Arabs have lived peaceably, if uncomfortably, together, for generations.  

Recall the international outcry, the vast majority of it castigating Israel.  Recall the 24/7 news cycle that kept this story front and center while other headlines—like the May 16th terrorist bombing of a school in Kabul which claimed the lives of 90 and injured another 240, most of them girls between the ages of 11 and 15—barely registered.  

It’s been four months and I remain shaken, despondent, angry.

I’m not alone.

Six days into the conflict, we heard from a college student who had traveled to Israel in February 2018 with her high school senior class, and with Cantor Kleinman and me, as the culminating experience of WRT’s “Packing for College” program, a trip we plan to restore in the next year.  

“I am reaching out to express my deep concern for Israel,” she wrote, and “how I am… processing the… misinformation on my social media pages.”

Let me say here how heartened we are by college students writing to their rabbis and cantors, aware that a crisis in Israel is a matter of spiritual urgency for all Jews, wherever we are.  

You remind us why WRT exists:  to infuse lives with joy, purpose, and impact through the Jewish tradition, and to carry that tradition proudly forward.  I hope you, our students, know that WRT will always be there for you to help you navigate the complexities and opportunities of Jewish life, no matter how far you may go, no matter what paths you may take.

So this was, all in all, the kind of email that we clergy appreciate receiving.  Still, we find it alarming that so many of our young people are caught in the crossfire of a debate characterized by a surplus of moral outrage and a shortage of reason or understanding.  

This spring, our students were pummeled with a steady stream of social media, public demonstrations, and quads festooned with posters accusing Israel and Zionism of “Racism,” “Apartheid,” “Colonialism,” “Ethnic Cleansing,” and even “Genocide”—words that have become part and parcel of the daily conversation about the world’s only Jewish state.

In such an emotionally charged milieu, with such hysterical rhetoric framing the public conversation around Israel, is it any wonder that our students feel worried and confused?      

With a quarter of American Jews agreeing with the statement, “Israel is an apartheid state”​​—appropriating the term once used to describe the racist and draconian South African regime in which a ten-percent minority of Whites ruled over a ninety-percent Black majority—and with nearly as many American Jews affirming that, quote, “Israel is committing genocide against the Palestinians,” and even as many as one in five under the age of forty declaring that “Israel doesn’t have a right to exist,” we should all feel worried and confused.  I know I do. (Statistics from “Jewish Americans in 2020,” Pew Research Center, May 11, 2020.)

The words I speak today are intended to reboot the conversation around Israel.  I am doubling down on my commitment to educate the Jewish community about the real Israel:  the real, messy, beleaguered, beautiful, bewildering, singular, Israel.  I am determined to do my part to demand an end to the delegitimization of the world’s only Jewish State.  I am determined that we embrace complexity and reject one-dimensional narratives about Israel—both reflexive demonization and reflexive defensiveness.  

We must understand there are, today, two Israels, which like the two Abrahams, coexist uncomfortably within the same body:  the Israel of moral greatness and the Israel of dangerous fanaticism.  

These past months have given me the opportunity to refine my thinking about Israel which has been honed through years of teaching the “Packing for College” course for our eleventh and twelfth graders and leading numerous trips to Israel for students, congregants, and rabbinic colleagues. (I have had the honor of serving as a rabbinic peer leader on multiple trips with the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF), the educational arm of AIPAC.)

Those of you who have traveled to Israel with WRT know that we do not sugarcoat the reality on the ground, nor shy away from difficult conversations.  

On the one hand, you will encounter a country of pioneering possibility; a country that welcomes the stranger, the immigrant, and the refugee; a country that has allowed the Jew not only to reclaim Jewish history but also to secure Jewish destiny; a country that has saved millions of Jewish refugees from peril and poverty, giving full citizenship to Black Jews from Ethiopia and Arabic-speaking Jews from across the Middle East and North Africa; a country that embraces the Jewish story, that clothes Jewish faith and observance, language and values, in the mantle of statehood; a “start-up nation” that leads the world in technological innovation; a humanitarian nation that rushes in when disaster strikes—for instance, sending rescue workers to Miami after this summer’s devastating condo collapse.  And you’ll meet a nation which has, in recent months, freely elected and installed a new unity government that has pledged to bolster Israel’s democratic norms, and which brings together voices from the left and the right—including Israel’s first Arab party to join such a coalition, and the first Reform Rabbi to sit in the Knesset—no small feat, these. 

And, on the other hand, you will encounter a country that continues to deny non-Orthodox Jews their full share of the rights and privileges—not only spiritual but legal—of living in the Jewish State.  You will encounter a country where women have to fight for their right to pray at the Kotel, to sit at the front of a public bus driving through religious neighborhoods, to live free from being barraged with obscenities or even spit on for wearing short sleeves; a nation lauded, among all Middle Eastern countries, for its inclusive attitudes toward the LGBTQ community and which still denies gay couples the right to marry, adopt, or bring a child into their families through surrogacy; a state that has eroded its democratic credibility by passing laws of dubious necessity that chauvinistically privilege Jewish culture and Hebrew language, while disregarding the cultural sensitivities of the more than one in five Israeli citizens who are not Jewish; a nation that has left tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees in a state of limbo, perpetually ineligible for citizenship but unable to go back to the war-torn countries from which they have fled; a country that continues to encroach on Bedouin and Palestinian lands with ever-expanding development projects and settlements, further marginalizing and aggravating already underprivileged populations; a country that has empowered some of its most fanatical religious and ultra-nationalistic voices, in the name of national security, to the long-term detriment of security, much less peace.

About this Israel—the Israel that resembles the second Abraham, the Abraham whose religious fervor nearly led to the sacrifice of his own child—we must unflinchingly speak the truth, because we are Jews, and that’s what we do. The Torah regards it an act of love and a moral obligation to offer reproof when one’s fellow goes astray (Lev. 19:17).  We do not prevaricate.  We do not dismiss uncomfortable truths such as these: 

  • In the Israel of today, you are disproportionately likely to be racially profiled if you happen to be black or brown.  Over fifteen years ago, a new term entered the Israeli lexicon:  “DWA,” or “Driving While Arab.”  It means that minorities (including Jews with black and brown skin) are far more likely to be pulled over by police without any traffic violation.
  • In the Israel of today, thirty-six percent of Palestinian-Israeli citizens live below the poverty line.  While the figures are better for Palestinians living alongside Jews in mixed-population cities (such as those where violence erupted this spring), still, Israel’s minorities generally experience poor access to quality education, jobs, and social services, and continue to be underrepresented in political leadership.
  • In the Israel of today, extremists, cynical political officials, and wealthy patrons have co-opted the 54-year long military occupation of the West Bank for their own ideological purposes:  a grandiose vision of Jewish totalitarianism in the Biblical Holy Land.  What began as a necessity for Israel’s security has become a moral and political morass with no end in sight.

“But Rabbi,” I can hear some of you saying, “No country is perfect, including our own.  Many countries struggle with inequality, violence, poverty, entrenched racism—including our own.”  I agree.  

“And Rabbi,” others may say, “Palestinian leadership has proved feckless and corrupt, passing up every opportunity to make peace, preferring terror, preferring BDS, preferring griping to the United Nations, preferring the status of perpetual victims over negotiating a real solution that would ameliorate the misery of their people.”  Again, I agree.  

Yes:  there is much the Palestinians could and should do.  And that does not negate the fact that we are Jews, with a shared stake in the Jewish state, and our work is not done.

Even as Rosh Ha-Shanah forces our reckoning with the two Abrahams—one, a paragon of moral restraint, arguing before God to spare the innocent, the other, stubbornly clutching the knife above the throat of his child—so too may this Rosh Ha-Shanah bring about in us a reckoning with the reality of the two Israels.  

Dr. Brad Artson, a Conservative Rabbi and Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, frames the task before us this way:

When we teach about Israel, we can endeavor to tell the messy truth of a persecuted people searching for safety, going to a land full of meaning for the Jewish people, full of meaning for so many other peoples, and also full of human beings who didn’t ask for new neighbors.

When we vote, we can vote for leaders who won’t continue paying lip service to peace while funding violence. We can use our position as citizens of Israel’s biggest benefactor to push to regulate and redirect funds in equitable ways that promote a peaceful and just future.

When we pool our philanthropy and direct our giving, we can pay attention:  Is our tzedakah supporting those who build peace or those who sow hate and violence disguised in the name of justice and Jewish continuity?  Is it supporting those who plant trees with their neighbors or those who are planting over their neighbors’ homes? (Bradley S. Artson, “The Letter Some of My Rabbinical Students Wrote Shows a Lack of Empathy–With Jews,” Forward, May 19, 2021.  https://forward.com/scribe/469900/my-rabbinical-students-letter-shows-imbalance-and-a-lack-of-empathyfor/)

Ultimately, the task before us—“to tell the messy truth,” as Rabbi Artson artfully puts it—requires that we come to terms with Jewish power, and Israel’s power, specifically.  

The question is not, “How can Israel become a moral entity by relinquishing power?” but rather, “How can Israel exercise its significant power, morally?”

“There has always been an allure to powerlessness,” wrote Bret Stephens earlier this summer.  “It means freedom from the personal and political burdens of responsibility, the moral dilemmas of choice. In an age in which victimhood is often conflated with virtue, it has social cachet. To be powerless is to be pure. To be pure is to be innocent.”

But innocence comes at a price, one that has been particularly terrible for Jews. Nineteen centuries of expulsions, ostracism, massacres, blood libels, torture, and systemic discrimination led to Zionism, which was, very simply, a movement and demand for sovereign Jewish power in the Land of Israel….  That the State of Israel was born, raised, and remains under fire isn’t a sign of the failure of Zionism. It’s a reminder of its necessity. (Bret Stephens, “The Necessity of Jewish Power,” Sapir:  A Journal of Jewish Conversations, Volume 2, Summer 2021.  https://sapirjournal.org/power/2021/07/the-necessity-of-jewish-power/)

I believe in the necessity of Zionism, the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, the declaration that we deserve to live free from terror and violence in our national homeland.  

But I believe in more than just the necessity of Zionism.  I also believe in Zionism as a moral imperative that rectifies millennia of injustice and suffering.  

And therein lies the great moral dilemma of our time:  how to execute this imperative, morally? 

To do so requires both boldness and restraint.  It requires that we differentiate between empathy and moral clarity, that we acknowledge a Palestinian as a fellow child of God—indeed, a fellow child of Abraham—while doing everything in our power to ensure that no child of Israel is consigned to days and nights of terror, hunkered down in a bomb shelter.

Moral restraint does not mean standing idly by while Hamas indiscriminately fires rockets targeting kindergartens and kibbutzim, homes and hospitals.  Moral restraint does mean thinking twice before confronting Palestinian demonstrators with riot police, particularly during Ramadan, at the El Aqsa Mosque which Muslims venerate—as but one painful example from recent experience.  

Ultimately, the moral exercise of power rests on the ability to discern when it’s time to raise the knife and when it’s time to lower the knife.  

For this very reason does the Angel call out, Avraham! Avraham!, addressing both Abrahams in the moment of decision:  calling on Abraham to summon his own better angels, to embrace the Abraham of moral vision and reject the Abraham of intolerance, to put down the knife and redirect his gaze. 

Only then can Abraham see a different way forward—a ram in the thicket—God’s way of telling us never to give up hope in the possibility for a better future, no matter how bleak the current situation may seem.

God’s real presence in the story of the Akedah was never the voice in Abraham’s head to begin with.  God was there all along, in the shadows, off to the side, redirecting his perspective, calling to him:  Put down the knife and see things a different way.

To that end, I want us to see Israel with new eyes—up close and personal—whether for the first time or the fiftieth—by joining a congregational trip to Israel to celebrate WRT’s upcoming 70th anniversary year, in 2023 (that’s two years from now, or, in other words, sooner than you think).  We hope to travel to Israel with you, our WRT family, joining all ages and stages of life, together with our clergy team and gifted educators.  We hope to announce details in the coming months.  

It’s Rosh Ha-Shanah.  A new day in a new year.  Our connection to Israel may be old as Abraham, but—with vision and commitment—we will create it and strengthen it anew.

Shanah tovah.