A Rosh Hashanah Sermon on Israel
By Rabbi Aaron Gol...
September 17, 2012
Both the given Torah readings in our Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah provide us with deep and challenging episodes in the lives of our ancient ancestors. This morning’s reading of Isaac’s birth, Sarah’s wish to banish Hagar and Ishmael that receives support from God and action through a reluctant but compliant Abraham raises so many existential questions. Many were raised by Kittah Chet, our Bnei Mitzvah class and their parents when we studied this passage last Shabbat.
How could Abraham and Sarah conceive at such a late stage in their lives? How had God promised this to Sarah and why the repetition of the word ‘laughter,’ ultimately included in Isaac’s name and on which the portion spins (you will have to look back to chapters 16, 17 and especially 18 to learn more)? How could Sarah be so mean as to demand Hagar and Ishmael banished from the household when it was her idea that they were there in the first place? Why does Abraham acquiesce so meekly? And why does it seem that God ordained Ishmael and Isaac and their descendants forever to be pitted against each other?
Many sermons have been written relating this Torah portion for Rosh Hashanah to situations that Jews have found themselves in, when they have faced a foe and defined them as being the descendants of Ishmael. This of course is the rub that we Liberal Jews accept. It is our human reflection on them that creates connections and not that of God’s hand active in the world.
Yet it is difficult in the modern world not to link Ishmael to Islam and in particular Arab nations and the Palestinian People, whilst clearly identifying ourselves and especially the State of Israel, with Isaac.
Many have been the time when Israel has been forced to act as Sarah does. She is a realist, understanding that Abraham’s older son, originally designated as his heir through her own devise, would always pose a threat to Isaac’s future. To protect her son, she acted against her rival. So Israel has had to defend itself. There are still very real dangers that Israel faces and from which it must protect itself.
There is no conversation with Israelis about their State that does not include Iran. There is a real and palpable fear from those of all political standpoints coupled with a mistrust in their own leadership and a doubt – borne from more recent military operations and domestic policies – that the right decisions will be made.
Just as civilised people around the world have been revolted by witnessing the sickening, violent and cynical response from Islamic fundamentalists to an anti-Islamic clip on the internet, Israel knows it is on a front-line facing Islamic extremism. Just how many Israeli flags have been burnt this past week? There is the continuous, if presently staccato, flow of rockets from Gaza. There is instability in Syria and Egypt and the constant threat from the north and Hezbollah. Yet, at their most rational, the majority of those I spoke with this summer in Israel recognise that the greatest threat to the State of Israel is its own moral soul.
Abraham does not completely comply with Sarah’s statement and God’s agreement with her. Firstly, even though it is meagre, he provides Hagar and Ishmael with provisions. Why do that at all seeing as he had been reassured some that God would provide for them, other than out of true concern or compassion. The rabbinic traditions also suggest that Abraham, with Sarah’s grudging acceptance, continues to provide and care for Hagar and Ishmael. The relationship continues even when it conversations and circumstances might be difficult.
Whilst I was in Israel this summer, there were real questions about the State’s care for its own citizens. Countless committee meetings and debates were held in the Knesset about whether funding was available for care for the elderly in their homes, just one example of such a case. However, few MKs bothered to turn up to the committee meetings that discussed the budgets for defence and settlements. It was a given that they would pass. This is of course to say nothing of the treatment of refugees, of Palestinians in the West Bank or of Israeli Arabs, Palestinian citizens of Israel.
Whilst it is important that we continue to give voice to our concerns about Israel’s treatment and policies in the West Bank, I do not truly believe that we will have real affect. However, we can and should consider what we as individuals and as a community can do to affect the moral soul of Israel and its citizens: our friends and our relatives. Our Synagogue has twin policies relating to Israel.
The first is to promote Progressive Judaism and its values in Israel, based on the ethical statements of the ancient Prophets. We cannot deny that Israel has its own Jewish fundamentalists, be they religious or nationalist or a combination of the two. Over the year, we have seen an increase in the incidents that have been vicious, violent and corrosive to relations with those of other religions. Through the promotion of Progressive Judaism and its influence through education, we can create opportunities for young Israelis and their families to create an alternative path. As a Synagogue, we have done and will continue to provide opportunities for our members to contribute, both financially and through our own good services in Israel, to this cause. Indeed, our Cheder have already adopted as its Tzedakah project for the term, Leket Israel, a non-sectarian logistics operation that seeks to support all in.
The second is to promote co-existence. Despite the discrimination that they face from local and national Government policies, there are signs that the Israeli Arabs, Palestinian Citizens of Israel or as many of the young people I have met call themselves, simply Israelis, who make up 20% of the population, are beginning to feel more confident as Israelis. In every city and town that was not Jerusalem or overrun by Charedim - the ultra-orthodox - where many secular Jews do not feel welcome, there were Israeli Muslims. They were not only in the shopping centres and streets of Haifa, but very evident in the Dizengoff Centre of Tel Aviv, cultural centres and national parks around the country.
Many young Israeli Muslims are studying at Israeli universities and choosing to do so rather than to go to those in the West Bank. They are trying to do their part to create a better Israeli society. You may have met Safiya, the leader of the group of Israeli teenagers who spent a week this summer with us and at Kadimah. She has established a society at Haifa University to support Israeli Jews to understand their Israeli Muslim peers and to be able to converse with them. She found that, perhaps because of the age gap – few Israeli Muslims understandably do national service and therefore enter university at a younger age – or because (and this is my projection) that the experiences of the Israeli Jews serving in the army have formed guilt, and I am sure some through their prejudices, the Jewish students did not know how to start conversations with their Muslim peers. She is making a difference.
I am deeply proud that we have, alongside supporting Israeli Jews, engaged in this project of helping young Israeli Jews and Muslims to meet and to find that they can be friends. I thank all of you who supported the programme this summer. I apologise for the rather chaotic fashion of its organisation with me not being here but am deeply proud that you enabled it to continue. I am speaking with leaders at Liberal Judaism to seek support from the national organisation and other constituent congregations for this programme into the future. I urge those of you who are going to Israel on holiday or business trips to go and visit or stay in the village of Nahaf, as our member Lawrence Garber did and as our family did for the first night of Ramadan and Eid. You will find people who are struggling to survive and others who are thriving, just as is the case amongst their Jewish neighbours. All are Israeli citizens and long-term, all will contribute to Israeli society. We can help that process.
Midrashic tradition – the folklore of the ancient Rabbis – suggests that the Keturah, whom Abraham marries at the end of his life (Gen 25:1-6), is none other than Hagar. Abraham follows the pattern of his relationship with Ishmael. He sends the offspring of his marriage with Keturah / Hagar eastwards bearing gifts to sustain them. He maintains his paternal responsibility towards all his children but, perhaps in deference to the memory of Sarah or maybe just because that is how reality is, he maintains a distance between Isaac and his half-brothers.
Inherent in God’s blessings upon Abraham, is the reconciliation of the future between Ishmael and Isaac. They reunite to bury their father in the cave of Machpelah (Gen 25:9) and Isaac settles at the oasis in the wilderness that Hagar named Beer-lachai-roi (the well of the Living One who sees, Gen 16:14). It is a place between Kadesh and Varad – between holiness and hail.
Let us pray that in our time, we will see a nation State to the east called Palestine. May it be a place as there must be in the State of Israel itself, where the majority live with the minority in peace. May both nations born out of Ishmael and Isaac know a time when they will live as peaceful brothers, peaceful neighbours, sustained by Beer-lachai-roi - the well of the Living One who sees.
But as Rabbi John Raynor z”l wrote, “It is not enough to pray for peace. We have to work for it.” May our prayers complimented by our actions, as individuals and as a community, play but a small part in supporting Israelis to create the nation envisioned by the ancient Prophets and by the founders of the State of Israel.
MORE FROM THIS AUTHOR
RABBI AARON GOLDSTEIN ON TWITTER