Rosh Hashana Morning: The Challenge of Israel Pursuing Peace
Over sixty years have passed, since Israel was created, and although Israel is a country of slightly more than seven million people, it no doubt receives more than its fair share of media attention. I don’t know about you, but I wish that Israel received a lot less media scrutiny, or perhaps those that are scrutinizing it were a lot less biased than they are.
The recent drama leading up to the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly is a case in point. Everything leading up to speeches by President Obama, Prime Minister Netanyahu and PLO Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas quickly became a form of political theater, and once again we were obliged to watch as Israel emerged isolated on the world stage. What with its rapidly deteriorating relations with Turkey Egypt and even Jordan, the same old scenario seems to playing itself out again, and what history seems to be teaching us is that, frankly, we Jews will have to depend on ourselves if we hope to survive.
Those of us who live in the Diaspora find ourselves watching know full well that our fate and Israel’s are inextricably bound together. We feel inside us the historic and spiritual bonds that tie us to Israel’s fate, and we fear that if Israel were to decline the future of our community would be in jeopardy as well. History has taught us that much, for what happens to Jews in one part of the world ----and especially Israel—happens to us all.
The question I raise is what is the spiritual big picture that we should remember when we are watching such a rapid degree of change going on around us with Israel and its Palestinian neighbor? The answer is that we cannot forget the lessons of history. When Jews win the peace, and even make sacrifices for peace, they have protected their long term security. Rising above the fray of international isolation and holding on to the moral imperative of Israel’s pursuit for peace are the two values that have sustained us in history and today. Remember when we recite the Unetaneh Tokef we affirm that prayer, repentance and tzedakah are all values that we affirm to make a difference in our lives. Similarly, Israel and the Jewish people worldwide will rely upon these values too in order to meet the challenges of its international relations, its domestic challenges and its mission to have its own security as well as to find a pathway to peace with its Palestinian neighbors.
In the Midrash Rabbi Meir told the story that illustrates the tension we have withstood dealing with superpowers when our fate was in their hands. For in ancient times God showed our biblical patriarch Jacob the prince of Babylon going up and coming down a ladder. Then God showed him the prince of Media, Persia, going up and coming down. Next God showed Jacob the prince of Greece going up and coming down and then the prince of Edom which in Rabbi Meir’s time meant the empire of Rome going up and going down. Then the Holy One said to Jacob, You, too, go up. In that instant our father Jacob grew fearful and said, “Perhaps, God forbid, as there is a coming down for these nations, there will be a coming down for me as well. God replied, “Fear not for though you go up, you will never experience a coming down.” (Leviticus Rabbah)
We have lived with this perennial fear that, despite God’s promises to us, we would fall prey to the Great Powers who dominate the world, and who care little for our survival. The truth is that God’s promise was only half true. We did rise as a nation in ancient times, but, those nations did disperse us and scatter us throughout the world. At the same time we outlasted these great empires. Still we have risen again and bear witness to the ancient promise that God made to our ancestors fulfilled. Nevertheless we can empathize how Jacob feels with regard to the fear he experiences because we feel it too today. It is the fear of isolation. It is the fear of standing not only before the world but against the world as if we were being judged unfairly by the entire world community.
And yet what makes this political drama so gut wrenching is the fact that Israel’s adversary and neighbor, the Palestinian Authority, is attempting to imitate what Israel did back in 1947 when Israel made its appeal to the United Nations for recognition as a country. Instead of the victim of hatred and bigotry that we experienced during World War Two that helped propel Israel to statehood, now after a long term Palestinian propaganda campaign over many years has been in operation, Israel is the oppressor and the Palestinians are the victims. Even Israeli public opinion is divided on that issue as is Jewish opinion around the world. What else is new?
I have no intention to speak directly about the politics and policy issues surrounding the current situation at the UN. Instead my concern at the High Holy Days is about reinforcing our moral and spiritual focus when these dust storms of politics, especially this seemingly perfect storm against Israel, arises and attempts to discredit Israel and the Jewish people.
I want to share a story about how hard it is to remind our own people, let alone the rest of the world,about the big picture of making trade offs for peace. In the 2nd century of the Common Era when Rome ruled the land of Israel, the Roman government decreed that the Temple in Jerusalem which had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE was now to be rebuilt. An enemy of the Jews went to king of Judea and said that the Jews were going to kill him and that he should let Caesar know that the Jews were going to rebel against the king. So the evil man counseled the Jewish king of Judea, a protectorate of the Romans that he could rebuild the Temple in another place or simply add a few more cubits to the original measurements of the planned renovation knowing full well that even a minor change in the design would nullify the religious sanctity of the structure.
Once the decree was issued to change the measurements of the new Temple everyone knew that it was impossible to accept and that, in effect, the project to rebuild the Holy Temple was cancelled. The people gathered together and began to weep and then get angry and begin to contemplate rebelling against Caesar.
The rabbis got wind of the politics and the potential repercussions of insurrection against Rome. So they sent Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah to meet with the assembly of outraged Judeans. As he stood before them he told a fable. As a lion was devouring his prey, a bone stuck in his throat. He wailed saying, “I shall give a great reward to anyone who removes it!” An Egyptian heron which has a long beak, came forward, plunged his beak into the lion’s throat, pulled out the bone, and demanded, “Give me my reward.” The lion roared, “Move off! Go boast, prattling, ‘I entered a lion’s mouth in peace and came out in peace.’ You can have no greater reward than that.” So too, it should be enough for us that we entered into dealings with the Roman people in peace and have emerged in peace. (Genesis Rabbah)
I don’t see this story as simply about the Jewish people or, in a contemporary setting----Israel, submitting to the whims of a superpower. It is about staying above the fray and keeping one’s focus on the really important priorities and values. The lesson that this tale teaches and that we have learned from the modern state of Israel is that achieving peace is always a painful and frustrating process. Israel feels as if they are giving up so much and they want and deserve a big reward for the sacrifices Israel gives up for peace. It can push Israel to the edge of its national and political sanity. Despite the feeling that Israel is giving up more than it receives in peace negotiations, in the end, peace is always Israel’s greatest victory.
Historians comment on a related story of the Cuthean who advised the Romans not to rebuild the Temple because it might lead to a rebellion against Roman rule—which is precisely what happened in 132 C.E. when the Jewish general and (would be messiah) Bar Kochbah led his countrymen in a disastrous revolt against Rome that ultimately cost hundreds of thousands of lives and put an end to any Jewish self governmental presence in the land of Judea until 1947.
Israel’s will to endure has been tested too many times in the previous century, and because of its military and moral discipline it has prevailed against the existential threats to its national existence. It is not the perfect state. Many Israelis disagree with its policies and have recently protested in unprecedented numbers for their country to address the most serious social and economic issues impacting the ability of Israelis to live above the poverty level. The fact that they did this and there was no -Jew against Jew violence- reflects that moral discipline. They all understand that no matter how angry they are at the current practices of the government, only peaceful means of protest were tolerable, and that civil dialogue was the only way to resolve problems for long term prosperity and for the security of the state of Israel itself.
And when it comes to the process to achieve peace with its neighbors, Israel’s moral discipline is often stretched to the limit. Once again Israel will have to make sacrifices for peace. The so-called Arab spring is certainly a test for Israel’s strategy in the Middle East. It requires Israel’s best judgment and wisdom in the long term and short term. We watch to see the ups and downs of the process of realignment noting that in the Middle East alliances go up and down with the desert winds. At the end of the day are we bystanders to this continuing saga of Israel at risk in a hostile world?
Of course the answer is no. But there is more that we can do for the Israel. We must all follow the tenets of our faith’s teachings on these high holy days. May we maintain that moral discipline now for the sake of our progeny who do not realize as we do that everyone has a role to play in keeping the peace for Israel. That is part of the reason why Congregation Beth Yam is sponsoring a trip to Israel next month. It is our duty to travel there and visit the country, speak to the people and listen to the issues. We are involved and engaged as supporters with a fervent commitment to do what we can to support Israel’s bid for peace and its work for economic and religious freedom.
Again, the Jewish people will sacrifice for peace as it did when it gave up the Sinai and parts of the West Bank and Gaza for peace. It is painful now just as it was painful for the Jews to accept the Roman decree to abandon the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. But peace had to prevail and that is the same lesson today. Shalom is the central value that Judaism teaches for civilization to endure. For that reason, I pray, Israel will endure.
This is how keeping our sights on the big picture resonate for Israelis for when they read the torah portion of the Akedah that we read on Rosh Hashanah morning. They see themselves in this story and living it in a way that is direct and raw. When families see their children off to serve in the armed forces they feel as if they are taking their own to the mountain as Abraham did to Isaac and offering them up as a burnt offering. The potential price for preserving peace and security chills the bones of a parent. Yet they do it because it is necessary and essential for the people to have peace.
May it be God’s will to imbue the leaders and the people of Israel with the spiritual and moral strength to find the pathway to a negotiated settlement and usher in a new era of peace. It may appear to be unrealistic but can we ever give up on the hope and prayer for peace?