Sermon for first morning of Rosh Hashanah 5775
September 25, 2014
אִם-יִתָּקַע שׁוֹפָר בְּעִיר, וְעָם לֹא יֶחֱרָדוּ
6 If a shofar is sounded in a city, do the people not tremble?
That quotation from Amos chapter 3 verse 6 has been much on my mind, especially since my return from Israel.
If Amos had been living in Israel this summer, I think that instead of asking
IM YITAKA SHOFAR B’IR/ IF A SHOFAR IS SOUNDED IN THE CITY DO THE PEOPLE NOT TREMBLE?…
He would have asked:
IM YITAKA TZOFAR B’IR/ IF A SIREN IS SOUNDED IN THE CITY DO THE PEOPLE NOT TREMBLE?
As many of you know, I was in Israel this summer, from July 11-21 to be exact, to participate in a study mission for Reconstructionist rabbis. The sirens were indeed like shofarot to us and all Israel. They would sound and we would tremble.
Although sirens were heard all over the country at various times, I personally only heard them when I was in Tel Aviv.
My first siren was when I was settled into my hotel room on my first evening in Israel on Friday, July 11th. I didn’t really know what to do. They hadn’t gone over the procedure with me when I checked in. So, I went out into the hallway and shouted “is anyone around?” “where am I supposed to go?” --- No response, so I went into the internal stairwell, followed the sounds of voices I heard a floor or two above me, and found a bunch of Russian speaking hotel guests in a laundry room. They were looking at their cel phones trying to get the latest news. They told me that you’re supposed to wait 10 minutes after the siren stops before you leave the secured area, but that most people don’t bother waiting that long. There were some nervous expressions on some people’s faces, but they were mostly taking it in stride. It was clearly not their “first time.”
The next evening, Saturday evening July 12th, I was eating dinner at a restaurant on the “Namal”, the refurbished Tel Aviv Port. I didn’t actually hear the siren, it must have been too far away. But apparently there had been one, because suddenly all the restaurant guests and staff were rushing past me into the storage area in the rear of the restaurant next to the kitchen. It was sort of a bonding experience: Now, as they checked their smartphones, folks were talking with each other even though they had been in separate dinner parties in the restaurant.
What really got me nervous was that only about 15 minutes after we went back to our tables there was another siren and we all had to rush to the back of the restaurant a second time. This time, I heard a boom. At first I thought a missile had crashed nearby. But folks explained to me that that was the sound of Israel’s Iron Dome defense system intercepting and destroying the Hamas missile in the sky overhead. Okay --- this time when I got back to my table I quickly chugged down the remainder of my pint of Goldstar beer and decided I’d hurry back to my hotel. Thankfully, it was quiet the rest of the night.
The next day, Sunday, July 13th, I got together for lunch in southern Tel Aviv with my rabbinic colleague Nina Mandel from northeastern Pennsylvania. Our Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association study mission was set to start on Monday afternoon in Jerusalem but Nina, like me, had decided to arrive a few days early to spend the weekend in Tel Aviv. Nina and I were wandering around an older neighborhood called Neve Tzedek. This was the first Jewish neighborhood to be established outside of the Jaffa city walls, about 20 years prior to the founding of Tel Aviv itself. A very peaceful and relaxing afternoon.
But then, while we were browsing in a souvenir shop, the siren sounded. The store manager led us out of the store as she locked the door behind us (We had been the only three people in the store at the time). The three of us rushed across the street to an apartment building and descended to the basement. A young couple joined us there. It suddenly occurred to me that this was the sort of private apartment building where normally one would expect the front door to be locked and where you’d expect to have to be buzzed in over the intercom by whomever you were visiting. But, in the face of missile attacks, such private property restrictions had been preempted by concern for civil defense.
After we heard the ominous boom over head – which sounded pretty darn close by --- and after the siren stopped, Nina and I went back to the souvenir shop. The manager offered us glasses of water, and thanked us for being in Tel Aviv this summer when so many tourists had stayed away. And both of us made sure to buy some souvenirs as we felt a sense of connection with the woman and her store. (I purchased some drink coasters with scenes of Tel Aviv.)
By this point, I was feeling really uneasy, worse than after the two previous sirens I had experienced. I guess I had lulled myself into thinking that the sirens only come in the evening. But now I realized that Hamas missiles could be heading our way any time of the day. After that, Nina and I went to a book store and browsed around. Then we headed west a few blocks to the Mediterranean, where we sat in the shade at an outdoor restaurant called “Banana Beach.” It was relaxing to hang out there with my friend and colleague, to wiggle my toes in the sand, drink my beer, listen to the American 70’s and 80’s pop music on the loudspeakers and watch the nearby beach volleyball games. After I said goodbye to Nina, I watched a beautiful sunset as I walked north along the Mediterranean back to my hotel. It was such an odd experience – Tel Aviv during the Gaza War was stressful and relaxing at the same time.
The next siren I heard was five days later on Friday, July 18th, and this time I experienced it together with all of my RRA colleagues. We had been based in Jerusalem, for the first three nights of our study mission and then were based in Tel Aviv for the last four nights, though we made day trips throughout the region.
On Friday the 18th, the siren sounded when we were getting ready to leave the hotel for a Shabbat evening service. I was actually just finishing up writing my August bulletin article on the computer in the hotel lobby. I was able to save it on google docs, but had not yet emailed it to Duluth when I had to rush to the basement with everyone else. I guess I was an old pro by this time. After the all clear I went back to the lobby to email my bulletin article before heading out. The Shabbat evening service we went to was put on by a wonderful community called Bet Tefila Israeli. The service leader and his fellow musicians of this community, which is about 10 years old, were featured at the recent URJ biennial in San Diego. The congregation is part of a renaissance of so-called “secular” Israelis who are re-engaging with Jewish spirituality. Their motto (found on the inside cover of their prayer book) is taken from a 1930 essay by the poet Chayim Nachman Bialik:
“Celebrate your ancestors’ holidays, and add to them a bit of your own – according to your ability, your taste, and your reason. What is paramount is that you do everything out of faith, and with a live feeling, and a soulful need – and don’t be too clever."
(Bialik is also the poet who composed “Shabbat Hamalkah”, the 20th century meditation on the medieval poem Shalom Aleichem with which we sometimes open our Shabbat evening services here.)
Bet Tefila Israeli is especially known for its outdoor Friday night services at the Tel Aviv Port, but this summer those services had been moved indoors – and, indeed, most large outdoor gatherings had been cancelled because of the danger of missile attacks. Still, even though we didn’t get to watch the sun set over the Mediterranean while we were davenning, it was great to experience the warmth and spirituality of that Shabbat evening service in Tel Aviv.
As for Shabbat morning services the next day, a few of us went to the main Reform congregation in Tel Aviv, Bet Daniel. A young man was celebrating his Bar Mitzvah there that morning. His Torah portion, Matot, describes Moses speaking to the heads of the various tribes (Matot) of Israel. In his speech, in Hebrew of course, the young man reflected upon how the various modern “matot” of the State of Israel ---Religious/Secular/Ashkenazi/Sephardi/Ethiopian/Rich/Poor ---were now working together in the Israel Defense Forces to protect the nation from terrorist attacks.
Finally, on Monday morning July 21st, while we were on a “Graffiti Tour” in the Florentine neighborhood of Southern Tel Aviv, the siren sounded once more. This time we found ourselves taking cover inside a construction site for a new high rise that was in the process of being built in that rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
I flew out of Israel on Monday evening July 21st, and have to admit that I breathed a little sigh of relief when we finally left Israeli airspace after some flight maneuvers that lengthened our time in Israeli airspace so that we wouldn’t fly near Gaza. Had I waited a day I would’ve been stuck in Israel for a few more days because of the cancellation of many flights after a Hamas missile landed near Ben Gurion Airport.
So, that’s my tale of Tel Aviv in Six Sirens.
Of course, while the folks in Tel Aviv experienced ongoing stress over the summer, the situation was far worse the closer you got to the Gaza border. In Tel Aviv you had 90 seconds to find shelter when the siren went off. In Sderot, on the Gaza border, you had 15 seconds. And the folks in Sderot and nearby areas have been dealing with Hamas missile attacks for the better part of a decade already, ever since Hamas forcibly expelled Palestinian Authority officials from there in 2007.
As for this summer’s fighting, though most Hamas missiles were destroyed or fell on unpopulated areas, there were still a few Israeli civilian casualties from the Hamas missiles, including the killing of four-year-old Daniel Tragerman in the community of Sha’ar Hanegev.
As we all know, the civilians in Gaza had it far worse. Cruelly used by Hamas terrorists as human shields, they suffered the brunt of Israeli attacks. But what was Israel to do when Hamas deployed its rocket launchers in residential neighborhoods; and when Hamas built its terror tunnels amidst civilian populations using concrete that was supposed to have been used for reconstruction of homes following the previous outbreak of fighting in 2012?
The Israeli author Amos Oz expressed this conundrum vividly in an interview with Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle published on July 30th. Here’s how that interview began:
“Amoz Oz: I would like to begin the interview in a very unusual way: by presenting one or two questions to your readers and listeners. May I do that?
“Deutsche Welle: Go ahead!
“Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?
“Question 2: What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?
“With these two questions I pass the interview to you.”
One of my colleagues in the Minnesota Rabbinical Association, Rabbi Hayim Herring, put it this way at an MRA meeting that I attended earlier this month in St. Paul:
“My right to life is greater than your right to kill me.”
As for Amos Oz, the great Israeli author, I very much agree with what he says later in his interview with Deutsche Welle:
“The present hostilities will only stop, unfortunately, when one of the parties or both of them are exhausted. This morning I read very carefully the charter of Hamas. It says that the Prophet commands every Muslim to kill every Jew everywhere in the world. It quotes the Protocols of the Elders of Zion [anti-Semitic diatribe – the ed.] and says that the Jews controlled the world through the League of Nations and through the United Nations, that the Jews caused the two world wars and that the entire world is controlled by Jewish money. So I hardly see a prospect for a compromise between Israel and Hamas. I have been a man of compromise all my life. But even a man of compromise cannot approach Hamas and say: ‘Maybe we meet halfway and Israel only exists on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.’”
Later in the interview Oz goes on to say:
“The only alternative to continuing the Israeli military operation is simply to follow Jesus Christ and turn the other cheek. I never agreed with Jesus Christ about the need to turn the other cheek to an enemy. Unlike European pacifists I never believed the ultimate evil in the world is war. In my view the ultimate evil in the world is aggression, and the only way to repel aggression is unfortunately by force. That is where the difference lies between a European pacifist and an Israeli peacenik like myself. And if I may add a little anecdote: A relative of mine who survived the Nazi Holocaust in Theresienstadt always reminded her children and her grandchildren that her life was saved in 1945 not by peace demonstrators with placards and flowers but by Soviet soldiers and submachine guns.”
Amos Oz’s views notwithstanding -- The fighting did cease on August 26th in accordance with a temporary ceasefire arranged under Egyptian auspices. So far, the ceasefire has stayed in place for the most part.
As you surely know, there have been fierce protests against Israel’s conduct of the Gaza campaign, especially in Europe, where some of the protests have crossed the line and degenerated into crude anti-Semitic agitation. There was even a front page article in the New York Times just yesterday warning of a general rise in anti-Semitism in Europe.
However, lest we become despairing or fearful, we should not ignore the profound difference between the Europe of the 1930’s and the Europe of today. In this regard, we should take heart from events like the huge demonstration against anti-Semitism that took place on Sunday, September 14th at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.
Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, was there and here is some of what she said:
“That people in Germany are threatened and abused because of their Jewish appearance or their support for Israel is an outrageous scandal that we won’t accept.”
“It’s our national and civic duty to fight anti-Semitism.”
“Anyone who hits someone wearing a skullcap is hitting us all. Anyone who damages a Jewish gravestone is disgracing our culture. Anyone who attacks a synagogue is attacking the foundations of our free society.”
“That far more than 100,000 Jews are now living in Germany is something of a miracle. It’s a gift and it fills me with a deepest gratitude.”
“Jewish life is part of our identity and culture.”
Remember: Those are the words of the Chancellor of Germany speaking. We should not minimize their importance.
In the wake of this summer’s fighting, I find myself harboring a complex mix of feelings.
On the one hand, while the fighting was going on, I found myself (like the majority of the Israeli electorate) very much in support of Netanyahu’s leadership with respect to the IDF’s efforts to fight back against the Hamas missile attacks, to destroy Hamas infrastructure, and to dismantle their terror tunnels.
And, to the extent that IDF soldiers failed to adhere to their own rules of engagement, I trust Israel to investigate these incidents and mete out punishment as appropriate, as it is in the process of doing right now.
As Rabbi Herring says: My right to live is greater than your right to kill me.
HOWEVER, ON THE OTHER HAND:
It seems to me that Israel would not even have been in this situation if it had been more forthcoming in its negotiations with the Palestinian Authority under Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Israeli government has consistently undercut Abbas. They have paid lip service to supporting the idea of a two-state solution, yet undercut that possibility by expanding settlements and seizing more and more land in the West Bank.
I was on a conference call earlier this month sponsored by the American pro-Israel pro-peace lobby “J-Street” with Knesset Member Nitan Horowitz from the left-wing party Meretz.
Horowitz put things quite bluntly:
Concerning, Mahmoud Abbas (otherwise known as Abu Mazen), he said:
“Abbas was very helpful in curbing violence in the West Bank. This is to his merit and proof of his true desire for peace. But it will not last forever if there is no hope for peace process. He is not a young man. He is a Palestinian leader. He is not Jewish. He is not Zionist. But we have to help him because it is in our own interests. Otherwise, of course we will have a third intifada and revival of Gaza violence if there are no peace talks. The lesson is: When there is no hope, that’s when you get violence. RESUME THE PEACE TALKS. THIS WILL PREVENT THE THIRD INTIFADA.”
[Concerning the recent appropriation of land in the Gush Etzion area of the west bank, Horowitz said:]
… “[W]e have an opportunity to resume peace talks and the Israeli govt. instead chooses to poke the eye of the Palestinians. They are repeating the same mistakes of building more settlements and seizing more land. This is telling us that Netanyahu does not want peace. It’s a lack of will not a lack of power on his part. We will pay a heavy price for such moves."
[Later Knesset Member Horowitz elaborated:]
“[R]ealistically, foreign or outside pressure won’t affect Netanyahu’s settlement policy. The only way to change the policy is to change the government and it’s up to the Israeli political system to do it. As long as this government is in place there is no real chance of changing this policy. If you look at this Knesset, you see there is a solid majority for peace. Netanyahu has the political support to make a deal with Abu Mazen but the problem is that he doesn’t want it.”
So, where does this leave us?
I for one keep thinking that we’ve known for decades what the solution is: Two states – Israel and Palestine – living peacefully side by side based on the 1967 borders as modified by mutually agreed upon land swaps – along with a small symbolic number of pre-1948 Palestinian refugees being permitted to return to Israel proper under the guise of family reunification.
And, if all this can’t be done right away in Gaza because of Hamas intransigence – then at least Israel should do it now with the West Bank-- permitting the West Bank to become a model of Palestinian freedom and prosperity that will inspire Gazans to want to reject Hamas and follow suit.
Meanwhile, we wait for moderates on both sides to hold sway.
Back to Amos – His question:
ו אִם-יִתָּקַע שׁוֹפָר בְּעִיר, וְעָם לֹא יֶחֱרָדוּ
6 If the shofar is sounded in a city, do the people not tremble?
is actually just one in a series of rhetorical questions in Chapter 3 of the Book of Amos.
Another one of those rhetorical questions, at Amos ch. 3 verse 3, seems a fitting place to close.
ג הֲיֵלְכוּ שְׁנַיִם, יַחְדָּו, בִּלְתִּי, אִם-נוֹעָדוּ.
3 Can two walk together, without having met?
May that meeting – a meeting of minds, hearts and spirits --- come speedily in our days, so that Israelis and Palestinians can walk together--- with no one trembling in fear.
© Rabbi David Steinberg
September 2014/ Rosh Hashanah 5775
 The quotations from Nitan Horowitz are based on my own simultaneous notes. They are verbatim to the extent I was able to type them out accurately while I was on the call.