If Not Now – Then When?
If Not Us – Then Who?
A rabbi, a cantor, and a synagogue president were vacationing together in Borneo. The rabbi, cantor and synagogue president decided, on their own, to take an excursion through the jungle. While they were exploring the flora and fauna they were captured by cannibals. Quickly the three of them were brought to the chief cannibal who said, “You are not going to want to hear this but we’re going to eat you. Now lest you think we are uncivilized, I will grant each of you one final wish.”
The rabbi, trembling and perspiring, said, “I guess what I would like to do is deliver my ultimate High Holy Day sermon, once again.” The cantor, also trembling and perspiring, said, “As for me, I’d like to chant the great Lewandowski version of Kol Nidre, one last time.” Finally the head cannibal turns to the synagogue president and asks, “What is your final wish. The temple president simply replies, “Eat me first.”¹
We are often confronted with having to listen to things we would rather not hear. A doctor’s diagnosis, a boss’s criticism, a teacher’s assignment, the evening news and even the rabbi’s High Holy Days sermon can sometimes cause us to wish we were eaten first.
Tonight you will hear some things you would rather not hear but nonetheless they need to be said.
The harsh reality is that over the last year the Jewish people have been forced to listen to all sorts of news and information that we would rather not have to hear: from the findings in the PEW report that spelled out the demise of the Jewish community and synagogue life in North America to the constant stories, including the front page of today’s New York Times, and on the evening news about the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe – not to mention that too often we are confronted with reports from our high school and college students who are experiencing anti-Israel and in many cases anti-Semitic rhetoric in their schools and on their university campuses; and, of course, all summer long we were bombarded with the news of air raid sirens and whistling rockets, and subjected to biased media attacks that came with Israel’s war against the terrorists of Hamas.
Could anyone have thought that only 120 years after the Dreyfus Trial – which stirred the conscience of Theodor Herzl – and 70 years after the Holocaust that annihilated one third of European Jewry, the cry of “Death to the Jews” would once again be heard in the streets of France and Germany? Or, that 66 years after the modern State of Israel was founded, we would still be facing external threats on almost every border? As the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Sir Jonathan Sacks so aptly said: “It is as if the world’s oldest virus of hate had undergone a new mutation once again.”
Maybe even sadder is the troubling noise that we hear coming from the ever complicated internal threats facing the Jewish people. The left and the right are battling over who has the best recipe for Israel’s future. Not to mention the constant struggle to create a pluralistic community in Israel and Jewish communities around the world.
At some point I am guessing that most of you, like me, wanted to bury your head in the sand or cover your ears with your pillow in order to shut out all of the noise. But we can’t!
On these High Holy Days, which ought to be devoted to our personal soul-searching, I am forced to deliver, and you are forced to hear, a sermon about the external and internal threats to our existence.
Since the days of Cain and Abel, humanity has often failed to fulfill its vocation. Nations have engaged in war and violence. Even as we speak, brutal wars are ravaging Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, Mali, and the Central African Republic. The Eastern part of the Ukraine is embroiled in a destructive battle with Russia and ISIS has our world living in fear. In the shadow of such darkness we must remind ourselves that we have been taught over and over that we are to become a people who will keep the laws of tzedek, chesed and rah’amim (justice, grace and mercy), not because of the coercive power of the State, but because we freely practice these laws and teach them diligently to your children.
As a result, we often find ourselves on the front line of those who advocate the respect for human life. And as a consequence, those who have no concern for the human rights of every human being have victimized us. Dictatorial regimes and terrorist governments have targeted us because we consistently refused to bow down to tyrants.
“Today,” says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “the face of tyranny is manifest in the extreme expressions of radical Islam, in al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, Hamas and all their supporters. These movements are indeed responsible for most of the havoc and destruction throughout the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. They have become a menace to the democracies of Europe and North America. Despite the fact that Israel is such a small element in this global confrontation, it is once again in the front line of the battle for human decency.”
In one of the most dangerous regions of the world, Israel has created a model of democracy, with free elections, a free press and constant innovations in the arts, sciences, agriculture, medicine and technology. The fact is Israel is a beacon of hope in a region dominated by fear and suffering.
I am not suggesting we pretend Israel is perfect or that we should ignore the complex moral challenges it faces. We cannot disregard its occasional failures or encourage unquestioning approval of whatever its government does.
Ardent support for Israel does not permit us to deny that Palestinians, too, have rights that deserve acknowledgment and suffer hardships no one would willingly bear. But, for example, when Israel’s security barrier is described with preposterous obscenities like “apartheid wall,” we must make sure people know the facts.
Did you know that 96% of the security barrier is a fence and not a huge concrete wall? Did you know that there are Palestinians and Israelis, Jews, Christians and Muslims on both sides of it and that it was erected as a last resort by a prime minister long opposed to doing so and only after more than a thousand Israeli women, men, and children were murdered by suicide bombers in cafes, malls, buses, and at Passover seders? Did you know that Israel’s Supreme Court has ordered it moved when it caused any unjustified hardship?
Whatever our views on the security barrier, settlements, and the so-called occupation, I believe we are morally obliged to make it clear: Hamas and Hezbollah sponsored terrorism preceded them. And whatever our views on the security, these issues will not be resolved by boycotts, denunciations, unilateral measures, and especially not by lobbing 5000 rockets into Israel. These issues will only end when Israel has a true partner that desires peace rather than the destruction of Israel and its people.²
Moses’ words ring out today with as much power as they did thirty-three centuries ago: “Choose life so that you and your children may live.” Sadly if Hamas were to do this one thing, the Palestinians of Gaza would have peace. Innocent lives would not be lost. Palestinian children would have a future.
I think Prime Minister Netanyahu said it best, “Israel uses rockets to protect its children – Hamas uses its children to protect its rockets.”
Although we shed tears with the families of all the victims of war, Israeli and Palestinian, we also thank God for the courage and resilience of the IDF and the people of Israel, whether the nations of the world show us sympathy or not.
I must admit that over last summer it was bewildering to me that so many people in our world, the media, the UN and even some Jews, chose to disregard Hamas’ aggression, condemning Israel for defending its citizens from the fire of the enemy. These people chose to ignore the fact that Hamas’ terrorists are storing their deadly missiles under private homes and schools, that they place rocket launchers besides hospitals and mosques, use ambulances to transport terrorists, and are taking advantage of civilians as human shields.
In spite of all these treacherous tactics, the Israeli Defense Force did their utmost to save innocent human lives. As Colonel Richard Kemp, a commander of British troops in Afghanistan, wrote in The (London) Times on July 25, “Israelis have been using the most sophisticated and comprehensive means of avoiding civilian casualties yet employed by any army in the world.”
Berkeley Rabbi Manachem Creditor, a progressive American rabbi who leans left pretty hard asks regarding the world’s acceptance of Hamas’ tactics:
“Were Hamas to truly lead its people to a life of stability and peace, wouldn’t it use building materials for schools instead of tunnels designed to instigate havoc and cause death to innocent people? Wouldn’t Hamas stop stockpiling weapons in mosques and transporting them in UN ambulances? Wouldn’t Hamas stop firing missiles from civilian population centers if it valued Palestinian lives as much as Israel does?”
Rabbi Creditor goes on to ask the enraged critics of Israel’s defensive responses to Hamas: “Would you have us not respond to this monstrosity? Do you think it’s not worth losing the PR battle to retain our humanity and save as many lives as possible? What country would stand by when thousands of terrorist missiles assault its citizens?” Rabbi Creditor, the self-proclaimed liberal who when referring to himself says, “paint me blue” ends his article by empathically stating, “I am done trying to apologetically explain Jewish morality. I am done apologizing for my own Jewish existence. I am done apologizing for Israel!”³
This is my eighth High Holy Days with all of you and I am sure that you would agree that I have never been apologetic about my steadfast love and unwavering support for Israel. In the past I have given many sermons about Israel, about the importance of maintaining the critical relationship between the US and Israel and have never stopped urging all of you to deepen your personal relationship with the Jewish Homeland and its people. And while you may not want to hear it again I feel I would be derelict in my duty as your rabbi to not say, “If not now, when – if not us, who?”
We cannot sit idly by as if our individual and collective engagement in the future of the Jewish people, of Judaism and of Israel is simply a luxury. If we don’t actively develop our relationship, if we don’t actively pass this love for peoplehood, for our traditions and for the Jewish State down to the millennial generation and beyond we could be in danger of seeing it slip away.
I do not want you, your families or me and my family to live in a world dictated by terrorists, anti-Semitism and fear. I for one refuse to allow this to happen. So what are we going to do about it?
I would like to propose three things:
First we must protect our own Jewish community.
It is true that the PEW survey found that a vast majority of American Jews of all backgrounds believe that “caring about Israel” is an essential or important part of being Jewish. However, at the same time, it found that Reform Jews are much less likely than Orthodox and Conservative Jews to feel “very attached” to Israel or to have travelled there. And the survey found that Reform Jews are also significantly less attached to holiday observance, synagogue attendance, Hebrew fluency, belief in God, and the importance of religion in their lives.⁴
Fortunately for us, I can honestly say that is not what I see here at PTBE!
I couldn’t be prouder than to serve this outstanding congregation. Yes, the PEW report told us that congregations were losing its members by the droves but PTBE has bucked all of the trends and pitfalls that have plagued many synagogues. Due to inspired lay leadership, innovative music and worship experiences, creative educational programming, rather than shrinking, our membership is at a historic high, and our programs are bursting at the seams.
But this doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels. If we are to continue proving the PEW report wrong it is incumbent upon all of us to ensure the existence of PTBE financially, physically and spiritually in order that we continue to be a bright light here in the Peninsula and beyond.
If we don’t protect and support PTBE’s future – who will?
Second, we must seize this moment to deepen our relationship to Israel. Why? Let me share a story with you.
The story begins in Saragossa, Spain and ends in Jerusalem. In 1990 Elie Wiesel visited Saragossa. Like most tourists, he visited the sites as well as the impressive cathedral. While walking through the church, a man approached him speaking French and offered to be his guide. In the course of their conversation, it came out that Wiesel was Jewish and spoke Hebrew.
The man exclaimed: “I’ve never met a Jewish person before, but I have something I have to show you. Maybe you can tell me what it is.” The men walked to the Spaniard’s apartment, and when they arrived, he took out an old manuscript. “Is this Hebrew?” the man asked. “My family has passed it down for generations. We were told that if it were destroyed, we would bring a curse on our family.”
Wiesel had heard of documents like this before but he had never actually seen one. In fact, it was Hebrew and it was almost 500 years old. Wiesel began to tremble as he read the document. Slowly he translated it for his host:
“I, Moshe Ben Avraham, forced to break all ties with my Jewish people and my Jewish faith, leave these words to the children of my children and theirs, in order that on the day when Israel will be able to walk again, its head held high under the sun without fear or remorse, they will know where their roots lie.” Written in Saragossa, the 9th of Av, in the year of punishment and exile.
“What’s the meaning of this document?” asked the alarmed Spaniard, who had assumed it was some kind of amulet. The man knew nothing about the history of Spanish Jewry or the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. In fact, until that moment he considered being called ‘Judeo’ an insult. As Wiesel told him the story of our people, his eyes grew wider and wider.
Wiesel and the man parted ways and it was not until a few years later that Wiesel understood what had happened that day. While visiting Jerusalem Wiesel was approached on the street by a stranger. In broken Hebrew he said, “Mr. Wiesel: Shalom! Don’t you recognize me? Saragossa!” It was his guide.
Once again, the man from Saragossa invited Wiesel back to his apartment, explaining as they walked how he had come to Israel, studied about Judaism, and returned to the religion of his ancestors. When they entered the apartment, Wiesel knew why they had come. On the wall hung the old document he had read years before. As Wiesel studied it again, the man smiled and said: “I haven't told you my new name: Moshe ben Avraham.”
How tragic would it be if when we, the Jewish people of today needed Israel – Israel wasn’t there for us?
If we don’t stand up for Israel – who will?
Finally, we must make sure our voices are heard in the upcoming World Zionist Congress, a place for Jewish voices from all over the world to be heard. The World Zionist Congress is the governing body for the World Zionist Organization, better known as the WZO. Established in 1897 and originally convened by Theodor Herzl in Basel, the WZO’s main goal was to unite the Jewish people and bring about the establishment of the Jewish state.
Every five years the WZO convenes a Congress whose representation is determined by democratic elections amongst the international Zionist political parties of which the Union for Reform Judaism and the World Union for Progressive Judaism are a part. You may ask why is the World Zionist Congress election important to Reform Jews? Why is this important to us?
The simple answer is that if we want Israel to be the kind of Jewish state that is akin to our values, we must show up and join in writing the next chapter of the Zionist story. The more progressive members we elect to the World Zionist Congress the more votes we have when the Congress makes important decisions and allocation of funds in Israel. These allocations directly relates to ensuring our influence in Israeli society on matters of conversion, equal rights for women, marriage and divorce and religious pluralism (such as at the Western Wall). This is why we must vote.
Simply decide now to register and vote beginning January 15 by filling out the Count Me In pledge card, which were placed on your seats, and return it to ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. We’ll remind you when it is time to vote. Tell your friends why a vote for ARZA, representing Reform Judaism is a vote for a progressive, democratic and pluralistic Israel.
If we don’t vote for a progressive Israel – who will?
Tonight you heard many things you would rather not have heard but nonetheless they needed to be said. The fact is we can’t bury our heads in the sand and pretend that Israel’s external and internal threats are not our concern, or pretend that anti-Semitism is not on the rise once again in Europe or that congregational life in North America is merely a luxury.
Instead we have been forced to listen to the complicated and nuanced realities of our world and now we must respond with all of our heart and all of our might.
We have three positive and productive ways of turning this past year of having to hear too much bad news into a better year for the Jewish people, for our Jewish lives here at PTBE, for the State of Israel and throughout our world.
So we must protect PTBE’s present and ensure PTBE’s future. We need to support this congregation physically, financially and spiritually. This is not a luxury. If we want PTBE to be a vibrant, inclusive and meaningful congregation for us, and for future generations then we have no choice.
If we don’t support PTBE – then who will?
We must strengthen our ties with Israel through study and travel. We must continually work to strengthen the ties between the United States and Israel. We must engage ourselves in a deep relationship and develop a love for the Jewish State for our children, their children and ourselves.
If we don’t stand up for Israel – who will?
And lastly, we must be counted. So please fill out the Count Me In pledge card and vote for the ARZA Progressive Jewish slate in January helping to safeguard a Jewish world that promotes the many issues near and dear to our Reform community.
I want to end with this: In one, five, ten, twenty years from now we will ask ourselves where were we when our congregation, our people, our traditions and our homeland needed us the most?
Did we do everything we could to protect and ensure our future? Did we do everything we could to protect and ensure PTBE? Did we do everything we could to promote a pluralistic, democratic and progressive Jewish world?
Did we stand up for Israel?”
How sad would it be if we chose not to listen because it was hard to hear? How sad would it be if we have to explain to our children, grandchildren and even our great-grandchildren that we let them down, that we let it slip away?
Maybe you didn’t want to hear what I had to say but I hope you listened to the message.
If not now – then when - If not us – then who?
This is the year and this is the time!
1: Adapted from Rabbi Bob Alpert
2: Excerpt from: Sermon Delivered by Rabbi Richard A. Block, President, Central Conference of American Rabbis, at the CCAR's 125th Annual Convention, Chicago, March 31, 2014
3: Excerpt from I'm Done Apologizing for Israel, Rabbi Manachem Creditor
4: Excerpt from: Sermon Delivered by Rabbi Richard A. Block, President, Central Conference of American Rabbis, at the CCAR's 125th Annual Convention, Chicago, March 31, 2014