(Dvar Torah given at Temple Israel on Friday evening 8/23/19)
Thoughts on Ekev (5779/2019)
(Deut. 7:12 – 11:25)
Our Torah portion this Shabbat, Parashat Ekev, includes some praise-filled poetry describing the Eretz Yisra’el/ the Land of Israel. As it says in Deuteronomy 8: 7-10:
כִּי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, מְבִיאֲךָ אֶל-אֶרֶץ טוֹבָה:
7 For the Eternal your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; 8 a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; 9 a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper. 10 When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the Eternal your God for the good land which [God] has given you. (Deut. 8: 7-10)
And later on in Parashat Ekev, at Deuteronomy 11: 11-12, Torah teaches –
11 And the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven. 12 It is a land which the Eternal your God looks after; the eyes of the Eternal your God are always upon it, from year's beginning to year's end. 13 If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Eternal your God and serving [God] with all your heart and soul, 14 I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late. You shall gather in your new grain and wine and oil — 15 I will also provide grass in the fields for your cattle — and thus you shall eat your fill.
For the Jewish people, our ties to that land extend back thousands of years, and Eretz Yisra’el has been a focus of our religious and cultural identity from generation to generation -- ledor vador --- in all the lands of our dispersion -- from Egypt to India; from Lithuania to Minnesota.
We don’t worship the land of Israel. We don’t turn it into an idol. Rather, we see it --- whether we are God-believing Jews or Atheist Jews or anything in between --- as the place in which the Jewish people made its home in antiquity; the place from which we were exiled first by Babylonians and later by Romans; and the place where we re-entered history as a sovereign nation with the rise of modern Zionism.
The political Zionism of Theodor Herzl is certainly, in part, a product of the culture of nineteenth century Europe – a Europe that gave birth to many nationalist movements. And the same can be said about modern Palestinian nationalism on the part of Arab residents of the region. Before modern Zionism, Jews believed that the return to the land would only come with the arrival of Messianic Days. Before modern Palestinian nationalism, Arabs in the historic Land of Israel saw themselves mainly as residents of their local towns, or as members of the worldwide religious Muslim world that was born in the Arabian peninsula.
As for Israel – aka -- Palestine, both peoples have compelling narratives connecting us to the same land, which is why it ought to be a no-brainer that compromise is needed. The content of such compromise is well understand by both the Israeli leadership and the Palestinian Authority leadership: Two states – Israel and Palestine – living side by side in peace, with a shared capital in Jerusalem, and with borders based on the 1949 armistice lines as adjusted by mutually agreed upon land swaps that would put some Israeli settlements near the green line into Israel and some Israeli land into Palestine.
Both Israel’s political leaders and the Palestinian Authority’s leadership have missed many opportunities over the years to close this deal.
And into this morass, lumbers in --- on one side -- BDS supporters like Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib --- and – crashing in on the other side -- that bull in a China shop – President Donald Trump.
Representatives Omar and Tlaib support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. BDS undermines the possibility of achieving a two-State solution for the Israelis and Palestinians by failing to acknowledge that Jews are an indigenous people to the Land of Israel, and by failing to acknowledge that Zionism is a movement not of European colonialism but rather of national liberation. But at the same time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is equally hard at work undermining the possibility of achieving a two-state solution through its continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Omar and Tlaib were planning to visit the region this month, ostensibly on a fact-finding mission in their roles as members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Their agenda pointedly referred to their destination as simply “Palestine” with no mention of “Israel.” Chances are, their visit would have created media soundbites critical of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
The Israeli Knesset two years ago had passed a controversial law barring entry to Israel of supporters of BDS, but Israel’s Ambassador to the United States had assured the U.S. government that Omar and Tlaib would be admitted nonetheless out of respect for the role of the United States Congress.
But then Trump intervened via presidential Tweet all but daring Israel to bar Omar and Tlaib or otherwise appear “weak.”
So, the Israelis changed course and barred Omar and Tlaib. Then Tlaib petitioned Israel to be allowed to make a personal visit to her grandmother in the West Bank, promising not to turn the visit into a political stunt. Israel said yes. But then Tlaib, no doubt succumbing to pressure from her erstwhile allies, herself changed course and said she wouldn’t go visit her grandmother after all if she had to refrain during her family visit from calling for boycotts of Israel.
That’s where things stood on Tuesday. A total SNAFU (If you don’t know what that acronym stands for, ask your neighbor.)
And then, not content to leave bad enough alone, President Trump on Tuesday decided he wanted to say more about the Omar-Tlaib affair. He declared as follows:
“I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
This triggered widespread outrage and a certain degree of confusion –As Avi Mayer, the Assistant Executive Director and Managing Director of Global Communications at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), quipped later that day on Twitter:
“Much as I enjoy the Talmudic debates around that age-old question—"to whom is the President of the United States accusing Jews of being disloyal?"—let us take a moment to reflect on how insane it is that we have to discuss this at all.”
The following day Trump clarified what he had meant. In a statement from the White house he said:
“If you want to vote Democrat, you are being very disloyal to Jewish people and very disloyal to Israel,”
Many people across the political spectrum have been condemning Trump’s remarks as anti-Semitic because Trump appears to be saying that American Jews are more loyal to the State of Israel than to the United States – or at least more loyal to the State of Israel than to Donald J. Trump.
Ironically, if you listen closely, what Trump really was saying was that American Jews – at least the vast majority of American Jews who typically vote Democrat – are not strong enough in their dual loyalties.
Supporters of Trump – including many Israeli Jews and some American Jews – shake their heads and wonder --- what’s the problem here? Don’t those unknowledgeable disloyal American Jewish Democrats understand that Trump is the best friend Israel has ever had in terms of his support of the Netanyahu government, his move of the American embassy to Jerusalem and his recognition of Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights?
I’ll say this: As an American Jew – the only undivided loyalty I have is to God as I understand God – or, in more humanistic terms --- the only undivided loyalty I have is to the dictates of my own conscience. That, at any rate is how I understand teachings like those we find in this week’s parasha where it says ---
אֶת־יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ תִּירָ֖א אֹת֣וֹ תַעֲבֹ֑ד וּב֣וֹ תִדְבָּ֔ק וּבִשְׁמ֖וֹ תִּשָּׁבֵֽעַ׃
You shall revere the Eternal your God: it is only [God] that you shall worship, to God shall you hold fast, and by God’s name shall you swear. (Deut. 10:20)
As for worldly, temporal loyalties --- I am loyal to the United States of America – or as we say in the words of the pledge of allegiance to our flag – “to the republic for which it stands”.
Indeed, as we learn in the Talmud --- “Dina de malchuta dina” – “the law of the state is the law”.
At the same time I am loyal to the principal of “Ahavat Yisrael” – Love of our fellow Jews – and this certainly includes the majority of the world’s Jewish population who live today in the State of Israel. Though I’m not a citizen of the State of Israel I am deeply concerned for its welfare and security. And I am certain that both will be strengthened by achieving a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the establishment of Two States for Two Peoples.
So, I’m not so concerned -- and I don’t think any of us need to be so concerned -- about accusations of dual loyalty – or as in this week’s bizarre turn of events -- of accusations of not being dual enough in our loyalty.
No, what really is upsetting, and counter-productive and just overall un=American -- is President Trump’s continual efforts to promote divisiveness and intolerance in our country within the American Jewish community and among Americans generally.
Danny Maseng, who is the composer of many wonderful Jewish liturgical settings, including an arrangement of Mah Tovu that our Temple choir sings on the High Holidays, wrote a fiery public post the other day on Facebook. Here’s what he had to say in response to the President’s remarks this week about American Jews who vote for Democrats:
And I apologize in advance – it is indeed more polemical than would typically be my own style of expression – and yet, the times call for such words.
So here’s Danny Maseng’s facebook post. It’s entitled “As a Jew”:
As a Jew
Since you called me out as a Jew, Mr. President, since you thought to call me disloyal or lacking knowledge by not voting for you, I’d like to respond to you personally, even though I have no illusions you will read this.
As a Jew, Mr. President, I am commanded to love the stranger who dwells among us no less than thirty-six times in the Bible you claim to treasure. I am commanded to have one law for the stranger and the citizen. No exceptions.
As a Jew, Mr. President, I am commanded to pay my employees on time, including undocumented workers at casinos, construction sites, or golf courses.
As a Jew, I am commanded to repay bank loans and investors.
As a Jew, I am commanded to never bear false witness.
As a Jew, Mr. President, I am commanded to guard my tongue and speak no evil.
As a Jew, Mr. President, I am commanded to never embarrass my fellow human being in public, lest I be accused of spilling their blood – including Ted Cruz or the late Senator and war hero, John McCain.
As a Jew, Mr. President, I take great offense in my president attacking Denmark, a country that gallantly saved its Jews from the Nazis, while most of Europe fell asleep.
As a Jew, Mr. President, I take umbrage in my Grandfather, the sainted Dr. Rabbi Harry S. Davidowitz, who inhaled poison gas in the trenches of WWI as a US Army chaplain, being called disloyal because he voted Democrat.
As a Jew, born and raised in Israel, I take offense at you calling me disloyal to America AND to Israel because I oppose your inept, ghoulish, uncouth, deceitful, inhumane farce of leadership. How many tours of duty have you performed for Israel during wartime? Or, for that sake, the USA?
As a Jew, Mr. President, I reserve the right to oppose Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib (neither of whom called upon the help of a former KGB operative to help them in their election to office), while simultaneously condemning your divisive, racist rants and policies.
As a Jew who has proud Republican family members who I love and cherish, I am ashamed of what you have done to the Republican party; to conservative ideals – even if I do not share all of those ideals.
As a Jew whose Christian uncle fought heroically at the Battle of the Bulge for our country and for the salvation of Europe – I am ashamed by the mockery you visit upon his sacrifice.
As the son of a Christian pilot, later converted to Judaism, who led American pilots to glorious victory over Nazi Germany, I am outraged by your embrace of neo-Nazi’s and racists in America (that same pilot, who became a squadron commander in the Israeli Air Force, and fought for Israel’s independence).
As a Jew, I am disgraced by your fawning adoration of the worst dictators of our century – you violate Christian and Jewish values by doing so.
As a Jew; as a well-informed Jew who loves and cares deeply for Israel and for America, I condemn you and call you out for the divisive fool, the ogre, the ghoul that you are.
May my soul not enter your council, let me not join your assembly.
(words of Danny Maseng)
So, this is where we are this Shabbat – the second of the Seven Sabbaths of Comfort and Consolation leading towards Rosh Hashanah.
We cannot give up the hope for extremism on all sides to be defeated.
We cannot give up the hope for mutual respect and compromise to come to ascendancy in our own country, in Israel/Palestine and around the world.
Parashat Ekev describes God’s relationship to the Land of Israel by saying:
It is a land which the Eternal your God looks after; the eyes of the Eternal your God are always upon it, from year's beginning to year's end.
May that divine providence be over not just our spiritual homeland of Israel -- but also over these United States of America and over all the world – working its way through we the people.
Let us not let divisiveness and hate stand in the way.
(C) Rabbi David Steinberg
August 2019/ Av 5779