Sermon for First Day of Rosh Hashanah 5778 (September 21, 2017)
We’ve all heard about the stereotypical homework assignment that many kids get assigned each fall when the school year begins. You know -- the old, “What I did on My Summer Vacation” essay.
That’s sort of what I’ve assigned myself to do in this talk today. Except that this is my “What I did on my Six-Month Sabbatical” essay.
In the Torah “sabbatical” is first introduced as an agricultural concept:
Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow.
My recent sabbatical, during my seventh year as your rabbi, was indeed a “fallow” time for me in that I had a much-appreciated break from my day to day work of teaching, writing, counseling and generally representing the Jewish community. It was a wonderfully rejuvenating experience for me. I am so grateful for the support of the congregation in enabling me to have a sabbatical and in welcoming me back so warmly at its conclusion.
So, what did I do on sabbatical? From the time that I was ordained 20 years ago I always had hoped that someday I’d be at a congregation for an extended enough tenure that I could be eligible for a sabbatical in Israel. In particular, I wanted to live in Tel Aviv – my favorite place in Israel – and get an extended experience of life there and get closer to fluency in modern Hebrew.
So that’s what I did. After a few days off as I prepared to leave the United States last December, I spent five months in Israel, followed by a few weeks of travelling in Europe on my way home. If you’ve been following the monthly bulletin articles that I wrote while I was away you already know about some of the experiences I had during those travels.
With respect to my educational endeavors:
I attended an eight-hour per week advanced modern Hebrew immersion class or “Ulpan” at a public institution called Ulpan Gordon.
And I attended a six-hour per week course on parshanut (that is, classical Torah commentary through the ages) at the “Bet Midrash Tel Aviv” program run by a pluralistic organization called Bina: The Jewish Movement for Social Change. https://bina.org.il/en/ . That course was taught in English but we studied the texts in the original Hebrew.
I also engaged an individual tutor for modern conversational Hebrew through a private Ulpan program called “Citizen Café.”
Other learning that I did on a more limited basis included attendance at study groups that were conducted totally in Hebrew including the Talmud group at the Alma Center for Hebrew Culture and the Bet Midrash that met weekly at the Tel Aviv LGBT Center. I also had lots of other informal opportunities for trying to improve my Hebrew and general understanding of Israeli culture.
It was just so great reconnecting with family and old friends whom I had not seen in years, and making new friends – including native Israelis, recent immigrants and other foreign visitors.
Of course, I missed all of you, and it was especially challenging to be away from Liam (who is sitting over there). For those of you who don’t know, Liam and I had started dating in April of last year, when I had already committed myself to going to Israel on sabbatical. But we had a wonderful time when he visited me in Israel in February, and when we travelled together in Europe during my last few weeks before I returned to Duluth.
During my time in Israel I really enjoyed being a “Jew in the Pew.” I enjoyed studying the Torah portion each week without the responsibility of sermonizing or teaching about it. But I did participate regularly in various pluralistic congregations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and several times accepted invitations to share in the musical and liturgical leadership of various Shabbat services as Torah and haftarah reader, cantor and instrumentalist.
In June, after my return to Duluth, I spoke at our monthly Learner’s Lunch about my general impressions of Israel. Those impressions included:
--- How Tel Aviv has lots more “pluralistic” and “non-charedi” religious options than in the past.
--- How significant numbers of young immigrants from western Europe have been arriving in recent years.
--- How there are construction projects everywhere, including a new Tel Aviv light rail system and the renovation of historic Dizengoff Square.
--- How Tel Aviv is an LGBT Mecca.
--- How great are Tel Aviv’s beaches and parks and the outdoor gyms that dot the landscape.
--- And how wonderful it was to experience some of the traditional Jewish and modern Israeli holidays in a place where they were ubiquitous.
When rabbis or lay people write divrei torah it’s standard practice to try to connect our thoughts to a relevant Biblical verse or line from the liturgy. But, really, who needs to find a specific textual link in order to talk about our relationship to Israel. As I see it, our entire identity as Jews is tied up with our connection to the land and people of Israel. To quote from the opening lines of the State of Israel’s Declaration of Independence –
"The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped. Here they first attained to statehood, created cultural values of national and universal significance and gave to the world the eternal Book of Books.
"After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration in it of their political freedom."
As I’m sure most of you know, this return on a mass scale began with the rise of the modern Zionist movement, starting in the late 19th century, though small numbers of Jews had lived continuously in the land of Israel throughout the intervening centuries. The re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the ancient Jewish homeland is no small thing. How different is our standing and place in the world since 1948 as compared to the previous centuries of exile when we were at the mercy of foreign governments who, to put it mildly, did not always have our best interests at heart.
In the decades when our grandparents and great-grandparents were young, the majority of the world’s Jews lived in Europe. We know what happened to millions of them.
In the decades when people of my generation were young, the largest Jewish community in the world was in the United States.
Today, the largest Jewish community in the world is in The State of Israel. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, as of 2016, out of a global Jewish population of about 14 and a half million Jews, 44% of the world’s Jews live in Israel and 39.5% of the world’s Jews live in the United States. The next largest Jewish community is in France, with 3.2% of the world’s Jews.
As a percentage of national population, 73.7% of Israel’s population is Jewish and no other nation on earth has a population that is more than 2% Jewish.
What this tells me is that, now more than ever, to be a Jew means to have a relationship with what is going in our Jewish homeland, the State of Israel.
As you can gather from what I’ve said so far—I loved being in Israel.
But it’s a complicated relationship. I knew that before I started my recent sabbatical and I know it even more now that I’m back home in Duluth.
When I was growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, it never occurred to me to think of Israel as anything other than a safe haven in case, God forbid, a new holocaust might ever arise; or as the birthplace of Judaism which would be interesting to visit at least once in my life --- just like Muslims try to go on Hajj to Mecca once in a lifetime.
When I was growing up, Jewish was my religious identity and a mix of Ukrainian, Russian, Hungarian and Polish was my ethnic identity. The idea of Jewish as a “national” identity was foreign to me.
All that changed for me when I spent my junior year of college as an exchange student at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. I expected to be homesick for Americans and I didn’t expect to be homesick for Jews. And, as it turned out, the opposite was true. I found myself homesick for fellow Jews and totally fine with not having other Americans to hang out with. And then, during the December 1981 holiday break, I flew from Britain to Israel – meeting up with extended family there, and taking a 10-day tour of the country organized by ISSTA – the Israel Student Travel Agency. (This was before “Birthright” so it wasn’t free…)
During the course of that first short visit to Israel in December 1981, I fell in love with the country. I was overwhelmed by the feeling of being “at home” even though I had never been there before. And I was moved by the ubiquity of Hebrew, by the nationwide Chanukah celebrations, and by the incredible geographic diversity within such a small area. When I got back to Scotland for the second half of my junior year abroad, I started getting involved in the Edinburgh University Jewish Society and I started thinking about going back to Israel is summer 1982 to volunteer on a kibbutz. And I started thinking about making Aliyah a year or two after that once I would have finished up my American undergraduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
My parents were horrified.
And, yes, I was an impressionable 20-year-old at the time.
By the time the summer rolled around, I had decided that – no, I wouldn’t emigrate to Israel – but I’d still go back that summer for the experience of volunteering on a kibbutz, learning some more modern Hebrew, and seeing more of the country.
To this day, I remember one of my Israeli relatives that summer of 1982, telling me that I was a “goyishe kopf” (Yiddish for someone with a non-Jewish head --- it’s not a compliment) for thinking that I or anyone else could possibly live an authentic Jewish life anywhere but in Israel. Now, mind you, none of my Israeli relatives were particularly religious. They looked at me like I was from the moon when I expressed interest in attending Shabbat services. But what my father’s cousin in Haifa said about herself was this: “I’m a good Jew. I love my country.” As if Zionism and Jewish identity were simply synonymous.
The Israel I experienced this year on my sabbatical was a lot different from the Israel I had experienced back in 1981 and 1982. Two of my Israeli-born second cousins left Israel decades ago to live in the United States and England. And my subjective sense is that most Israeli Jews have long since recognized that the Jews of the free world are not going to make Aliyah en masse. There will be no universal ingathering of the exiles anytime soon. But meanwhile, construction cranes were everywhere. The city of Beersheva, where I spent the 1995-96 academic year, was barely recognizable to me as it had tripled in size during the past two decades. And in Tel Aviv, I heard lots of French on the streets in Tel Aviv from recently arrived immigrants.
Yes, we can experience rich Jewish lives outside of Israel – even here in our beautiful Zenith City on the Unsalted Sea. And we can all give ourselves a little pat on the back about how active we are as a Jewish community here in Duluth where there are so few of us and where we are such a small minority.
But I have to admit, it’s a pale imitation of what Jewish life can be in a Jewish country. And I’m also increasingly convinced that without a strong connection to the vibrancy of Jewish life in Israel, our own American Jewish identity will become more and more attenuated and more and more distant from knowledge of our Jewish heritage.
The result of all this is that I had somewhat of an identity crisis while I was in Israel this year. There were times that I felt embarrassed to let people know that I was a rabbi. I mean, how could I be a rabbi when my Hebrew is not fluent. How could I be a rabbi when I know so little Talmud. When I don’t plan to make Aliyah. When my personal ritual practice is so inconsistent.
But then I remembered the classic Jewish story of Reb Zusya, which Martin Buber retold in his collection “Tales of the Hasidim.” It goes like this:
Once, the Hassidic rabbi Zusya came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him:
"Zusya, what's the matter?
And he told them about his vision; "I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life."
The followers were puzzled. "Zusya, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?"
Zusya replied; "I have learned that the angels will not ask me, 'Why weren't you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?' and that the angels will not ask me, 'Why weren't you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?"'
Zusya sighed; "They will say to me, 'Zusya, why weren't you Zusya?'"
So, really, this is not after all a sermon about Israel. It’s a sermon about being ourselves.
And who are we?
We are Jews (and those who love Jews).
The ways in which we express Jewish identity and live out Jewish values are all over the map --- but we treasure that diversity. And though we live thousands of miles from the global center of Jewish life, our own Jewish identities are nevertheless valid, authentic and life-affirming.
We are Americans --- of diverse backgrounds --- who live in a Republic which has many imperfections and in which much work needs to be done to turn it into a more just and compassionate society. But as someone who for many people I know is best thought of as “He who shall not be named” recently said:
"[N]o matter the color of our skin, we all live under the same laws; we all salute the same great flag; and we are all made by the same almighty God. We must love each other, show affection for each other, and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry, and violence. We must discover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans. Racism is evil, and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans. We are a nation founded on the truth that all of us are created equal. We are equal in the eyes of our creator, we are equal under the law, and we are equal under our constitution.”
We are Jews (and those who love Jews).
We are Americans --- of diverse backgrounds
And we are existentially connected to the State of Israel, a society still trying to define itself almost 70 years after its establishment.
Among those still pressing issues:
What will be the relationship between the Jewish religion and the institutions of the State of Israel?
What will be the status of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism there --- or even of liberal streams within Orthodoxy?
What needs to be done to eliminate all vestiges of discrimination within Israeli society, and. in particular, to guarantee civil equality for non-Jewish citizens of the Jewish state?
And what can be done to achieve the establishment of an independent Palestinian state living in peace next to the State of Israel?
We are Jews (and those who love Jews).
We are Americans --- of diverse backgrounds
We are existentially connected to the State of Israel
And, yes, we are individuals.
Each of us here in Temple today – though we are all Jews (or people who love Jews), though we are all Americans, though we are all existentially connected to the State of Israel ---
We are also, each of us, like Reb Zusya, unique; each of us with our own bit of Torah to teach’ each of us with our own capacity to heal the world--- even if just a little bit.
That’s what I learned on my sabbatical.
And all I have to add to that is simply to say, Happy New Year 5778!
Shanah tovah u’metukah/ May it be a good and sweet new year for us, for our loved ones, for our congregation, for our city, for our state, for our country, for the State of Israel and all its inhabitants, for the entire Jewish people in all its dispersion, and for all who dwell on earth.
(c) Rabbi David Steinberg (September 2017/ Tishri 5778)
 Exodus 23:10