I am posting this on the eve of Israel's 75th anniversary of independence. The translation is based on what I found on the Israeli Knesset website with my own revisions to bring the words closer to the Hebrew at the sacrifice occasionally of an equivalent English idiom. I have chosen to translate the term "Eretz Yisrael" throughout as "The Land of Israel", though there might be room to understand the term at the same time as "Palestine" in the sense it was understood in 1948, as that territory in question over which the British Mandate applied.
In Eretz Yisrael (The Land of Israel) the Jewish nation arose. Here their spiritual, religious, and political identity was shaped. Here they first lived as a polity, 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 remained faithful to 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.
Out of this historic and traditional connection, Jews strove in every successive generation to re-establish themselves in their ancient homeland. In recent generations they returned in their masses. Pioneers, immigrants in defiance of restrictive legislation and defenders, they made deserts bloom, revived the Hebrew language, built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture, loving peace but knowing how to defend itself, bringing the blessings of progress to all the country's inhabitants, and aspiring towards independent nationhood.
In the year 5657 (1897), at the summons of the spiritual father of the Jewish State, Theodore Herzl, the First Zionist Congress convened and proclaimed the right of the Jewish people to national rebirth in its own country.
This right was recognized in the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917, and re-affirmed in the Mandate of the League of Nations which gave specific international sanction to the historic connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel and to the right of the Jewish people to establish anew its national home.
The Holocaust which recently befell the Jewish people - the massacre of millions of Jews in Europe – proved anew the imperative of solving the problem of its homelessness and statelessness by re-establishing in the Land of Israel the Jewish State, which would open wide the gates of the homeland wide to every Jew and confer upon the Jewish people the status of a full and equal member of the community of nations.
Survivors of the Nazi slaughter in Europe, as well as Jews from other lands, did not stop migrating to the Land of Israel, undaunted by difficulties, restrictions and dangers, and never ceased to assert their right to a life of dignity, freedom and honest toil in their national homeland.
In the Second World War, the Jewish community of this country contributed its full share to the struggle of the freedom- and peace-loving nations against the forces of Nazi wickedness and, by the blood of its soldiers and its war effort, gained the right to be reckoned among the peoples who founded the United Nations.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel; the General Assembly required the inhabitants of the Land of Israel to take such steps as were necessary on their part for the implementation of that resolution. This recognition by the United Nations of the right of the Jewish people to establish their State is irrevocable.
This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign state.
Accordingly we have assembled, members of the People’s Council, representatives of the Jewish community of the Land of Israel and of the Zionist movement, on the day of the conclusion of the British Mandate over Palestine, and by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the basis of the decision of the General Assembly of the United Nations, we hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel: the State of Israel.
We declare that beginning at the moment of the conclusion of the Mandate tonight, the eve of Shabbat, 6 Iyar 5708 (May 15, 1948), until the establishment of the elected, regular authorities of the State in accordance with the constitution which shall be adopted by the elected constituent assembly not later than the October 1, 1948, the People's Council shall act as a Provisional Council of State, and its executive organ, the People's Administration, shall be the Provisional Government of the Jewish state, to be called "Israel".
The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ingathering of the exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the holy places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
The State of Israel is ready to cooperate with the agencies and representatives of the United Nations in implementing the resolution of the General Assembly of November 29, 1947, and will take steps to bring about the economic union of the whole of the Land of Israel.
We call on the United Nations to assist the Jewish people in the building of its state and to receive the State of Israel into the family of nations.
We call – even in the midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months - to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and take part in the building of the state on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.
We extend a hand in peace and neighborliness to all neighboring states and their peoples, and appeal to them for cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people in its land. The State of Israel is prepared to contribute its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.
We call to the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora to rally round the Jews of the Land of Israel through immigration and upbuilding and to stand by its side in the great struggle for the realization of the age-old dream of the redemption of Israel.
With trust in the Rock of Israel, we hereby affix our signatures in witness to this declaration, at this session of the Provisional Council of State on the soil of the homeland, in the city of Tel-Aviv, this day, the Eve of Shabbat, 5 Iyyar 5708, May 14, 1948.
Yitzchak Ben Zvi
Rabbi Wolf Gold
Dr. Abraham Granovsky
Herzl Vardi Rachel Cohen
Rabbi Kalman Kahana
Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Levin
Meir David Loewenstein
Rabbi Yehuda Leib Hacohen Fishman
David Zvi Pinkas
Ben Zion Sternberg
I am still trying to keep on top of my many channels, between this blog and the Tov! podcast and Temple Beth Abraham's site and blog, not to mention social media. (Not complaining!) I haven't put a link here yet to the many thematic Chanukkah-related writings I've got, some of them reposts from prior years and some of them new, whether it's my own thoughts about courage or links to others. You can scroll through all of that here, for now just on Beth Abraham's site and I'll get them up here eventually too. Also related is my reflection on science and religion through the lens/light of Chanukkah via Sinai and Synapses.
This is my D'var Torah from last Shabbat, Saturday, July 23, 2022.
“It’s not a movement if everyone’s just sitting.”
That’s a line from a conversation between then-Professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her 15-year-old daughter Jane in the film On the Basis of Sex, which is partly the story of how RBG, zichrona livracha, came to win her first major court case for gender equality. Professor Ginsburg has just come back from teaching her newest law students, after walking through an anti-war demonstration to get into the building. Her own students in class are passionate and impatient, and it throws her for a loop. At home that night, RGB brings up a note with her name that Jane forged so she could skip school and attend a Gloria Steinem rally. They argue about which strategy is necessary for women’s equality -- the legal process or the rallies -- and Jane gets in her zinger: “It’s not a movement if everyone’s just sitting. That’s a support group.”
I think about this argument when I read the story of the five daughters of Tzelophechad in the Torah portion Pinchas. Machlah, Choglah, Milkah, Noah and Tirtzah are sisters who are absolutely the spiritual ancestors of Justice Ginsburg. She a modern icon of equality and the exemplar of a certain approach to change, and the five Torah sisters also icons especially in our age -- but there is a lot of arguing these days against the approach they have in common. So I want to explore how the Torah and the midrash understand the daughters, the B’not Tzelophechad, and to argue why we need more of their approach even though there is truth within Jane Ginsburg’s critique.
The story of B’not Tzelophechad (Numbers 27) is that their father had died in the desert, before the assignment of future land holdings in the Land of Israel to every family. They have no brothers, and according to the law communicated so far, their immediate family will not have any holding of land when the arrive shortly. So the sisters approach Moshe, El’azar the high priest and all the tribal leaders, in front of the whole community.
Vatikrav’na Bnot Tzelophechad -- they “came close.” Which I think we can understand this way: their strategy was to shrink the distance between themselves, and the judges and the men of the community. The best way to read the story in the Torah might be to have in mind the first cases that RGB pressed as a lawyer. Such as the one at the climax of the film, Moritz vs. Commissioner, argued in federal appeals court. There she challenged the constitutionality of a law that denied an unmarried man a tax deduction for the expenses related to care of his mother, even though a woman would have qualified.
So too when the sisters speak, they center not themselves as women but their father. They say avinu, “our father”, three times. Only at the end of their speech do they say give us, t’nu lanu achuza, give us something to hold among our father’s brothers. They mention that their father was not like the other men who had in fact been enemies of Moshe and El’azar’s father Aharon, part of the insurrection against them led by Korach. Those men deserved to be punished by not getting a holding in the land -- but not avinu, our father.
That’s exactly how Attorney Ginsburg started building a set of precedents striking down laws on the basis of sex discrimination: with a series of cases centering men. B’not Tzelophechad, like RBG, did not call into question the whole patriarchical system of property and inheritance. They found a place where the authorities might agree on their own terms to a ruling that benefits women.
And indeed, the five sisters win their case when Moshe takes it to his court of appeals, to God -- and the law is taught that in a case where there is no son then daughters shall inherit. We might say dayenu just at the fact that God seems to respond to this argument from women. That’s suprising all by itself, no? And not only that, but the first words of God’s response put B’not Tzelophechad in the center, and repeat their request as a court order -- naton titen lahem, “give, yes give to them” -- and “their father” isn’t mentioned until last part of that sentence.
But the midrash goes even further in explaining the process of legal response that happens here.
When God hears the sisters’ case, God’s first words to Moshe are: Ken B’not Tzelophechad dovrot. “The daughters are speaking right.” Also ken means “thus”, as in: the daughters of Tzelophechad are speaking the exact words I God have been instruction you Moshe to say already.
In this interpretation, God is saying: Moshe, you have been teaching the people the law of inheritance but you have left a gap. I have told you about it, but you have had a blind spot. Not me, not I the Divine -- but you are not seeing it. Even I haven’t been able to teach you yet how a law about families without sons is necessary. So now here are five real people -- do you see them? Do you get now the situation I’ve been telling you about?
So according to the midrash, God’s law isn’t being changed at all. It’s just being unblocked. Moshe finally is able to teach this part of the law to the people. And this is what makes him realize that it’s time to get to planning better for his retirement and succession. The rest of the chapter is Moshe saying to God: Let’s find a new leader who can lead around these matters better than I have been doing.
It is a compelling case of influencing leadership from the grassroots for social change. Ken B’not Tzelophechad dovrot.They speak ken -- they speak honesty, with integrity, with respect. They say ken to the men in charge -- ken means “yes.” Yes to the basic framework of Torah. The sisters have a better understanding of what God wants than even Moshe does.
That’s famously how RBG did it, particularly at the start of her career. She won more than one case on behalf of men, and got male judges to say that legal equality between the sexes was not new but had been in the Constitution all along. Justice Ginsburg spoke again and again about what we might call the vatik’rav’na principle, shrinking the distance, and the ken principle, not losing your integrity in the process. And as for what her daughter Jane said in the film, the Torah describes B’not Tzelophechad as va’taamod’na, they stood up. They absolutely did, and this is how they did it.
I hope so far I’ve made a good case for B’not Tzelophechad. But Jane Ginsberg age 15 and plenty of adult critics still have what to say back. Of course a group of male rabbis in the Talmud 1500-plus years ago are going to approve of this soft-spoken, gradual approach from women. And what did B’not Tzelophechad really achieve -- one fix for one specific case. If they had been five sisters with one brother, they would have gotten nothing. If only Miryam had been alive still, maybe she would have spoken more fundamentally about the bias in the whole system. We need an approach based on wider questioning and more pressure and more discomfort.
Well our own Torah reading presents a version of that approach a couple chapters earlier. It’s Pinchas the son of El’azar the high priest, who was faced in real time with a terrible social injustice -- an insurrection against God in the form of a pagan orgy in concert with the people of Moav. People were about to start dying in the conflict, or some say people were already dying. (I would make the case, though this is a whole other talk, that this particular pagan orgy is offensive to the Torah partly because of how degrading idolatry and its rituals were to women.)
Pinchas sees what is happening, the threat to lives and I will say to women. He sees a particular man and woman together and he skewers them through with a sword, killing them -- and the whole thing stops and the dying stops. And the Torah says that God rewards Pinchas and his descendents that they will be the major lineage for the kohanim (priests) from now on.
This is passion. The Torah has God say: Pinchas is passionate for the things I am passionate for. It’s something like what Professor RBG is afraid of according to the film. If a door is opened to violence as a response to social ills, who knows what happens after and who will be its victims down the road, as bystanders or targets. RGB was afraid that people who meet the violence of the current reality with mass protests that are too broad and too agressive, they might stop a plague but also unleash one.
And that’s why the tradition is skeptical about Pinchas, even though the Torah says he is devoted to the right things and he is rewarded. The midrash trends toward a real concern about him. So one interpretation is that Pinchas was allowed only one of these violent acts in his life. And that’s why the Torah labels his reward brit shalom, a covenant of peace. From now on, Pinchas has to include peacemaking in all of his future work and all of his future activism. Otherwise he will be too dangerous an actor, even for God, even against this kind of pagan insurrection that is a clear affront to the Ten Commandments.
(It’s clear to me that the story of B’not Tzelophechad is told the way it is intentionally as a contrast with Pinchas, through wordplay. Pinchas has passion, kin’ah, but B’not Tzelophechad have integrity and honesty, ken. The sisters draw close, vatikravna, in a twist on the root word karav that labels the offerings so associated with priests like Pinchas, the korbanot. Pinchas is unusually for the Torah introduced as not just son, but also grandson. B’not Tzelophechad are given three more generations of lineage than that. Pinchas jumps up -- vayakom -- but B’not Tzelophechad stand and stand together, vata’amod’na.)
In the past, I might have said that the Torah is giving us two models of activism in B’not Tzelophechad and Pinchas, and we need them at different times or they suit different people. A time for passionate and force and absolutism, and a time for up close engagement and gradualism. A time for Gloria Steinem and a time for RBG.
But today I say: Enough with adding more Pinchas. There is too much of it among the bad folks and even the good folks. Our spiritual and political air is choked with aggressive speech, metaphors of force and fight and violence in our speech and writing, zingers far worse than Jane Ginsburg’s to her mother. Not to mention actual violence.
It can feel so good to tell off, to mock and insult. Enough people do that, in direct speech and on social media. They’re on the wrong side but they’re on your side too. It’s more than covered, the aggressive, the Pinchas. It’s not just masculine either. It’s probaby not possible to change all the Pinchas-style behavior once it’s begun.
But we need more people to learn the ways of Bnot Tzelophechad. I don’t mean to be content with only one change. Or to decenter the people who should be at the center. Jane Ginsburg and the other critics are so right about that. But I don’t think the most important thing about Bnot Tzelophechad, or RBG, was the gradualism, the strategy. It’s believing that there is power that comes with ken dovrot, with speaking correctly and out of integrity, with figuring how to communicate what is eternally true and you know it when that’s still new to someone else. There is power in vatikrav’na, to coming toward someone else’s perspective -- it challenges them but not in a threatening way. It challenges in a charged but still inviting way. There is power in believing that the changes that are needed are ken -- they are already here in the Divine image of the world, they are already more eternal and more permanent than anything else, they just haven’t been seen or spoken aloud enough.
These are powerful moves -- they just might not look as forceful from the outside and they sure are not violent. But powerful are B’not Tzelophechad whenever they appear in our world. Enduring change doesn’t come only from force or only from keen strategy. It comes from affecting how people see alternate leaders, the effect of their integrity. Respect for them transforms enough opponents and enough bystanders. It need not transform them all.
People acting like the five sisters might be a support group, and that isn’t a bad thing. But they are not sitting -- they are standing up together. Without them, without us acting like them, there can never be any movement at all.
This is the text of a column i wrote in the New Hampshire Jewish Reporter for December 2021. I am posting this today on Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day.
I have been a Zionist since I was a kid. I didn’t become an American Zionist, though, until I was 22. That was when I decided not to make aliyah and make my life in the State of Israel.
I was just back from a year in Israel as a college student. In Jerusalem, I was seeing myself a few years in the future as a Hebrew speaker, a soldier, a Masorti (Conservative) rabbi, a member of Oz V’shalom, the religious peace movement. I came home and couldn’t wait to go back.
Within a few weeks back on campus, immersed more than ever in my Hillel community, I realized how American I was feeling. I had the sudden realization that the only way I would fulfill my life was an American – an American Jew and probably an American rabbi. My great-grandparents came to America as a choice, and in flight from the czar’s tyranny. I was born American – but at the age of 22 I made my choice to be an American.
And my Zionism changed, from future Israeli to American Zionist.
I want to argue that an American Jewish Zionist is a Jew rooted in America. A first-class Zionist; not a consolation prize for not having the courage to make aliyah. A full partner in the project of Zionism. A partner with a specific and essential role that is obviously different from the role of Israelis.
My American Jewish Zionism is also a religious Jewish Zionism, and I realize that’s not the case for everyone reading. But I hope my concepts are useful regardless of whether that specific profile fits.
These are some of my fundamental tenets as an American Jewish Zionist. This thinking is hardly my own, and I owe more than anyone Rabbi Donniel Hartman, leader of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
Israel is the original and ongoing land of the Jewish people. The claim is religious and historical. It may be complicated in terms of Palestinians and their claim, but the claim still stands without compromise.
It’s a fascinating dimension of Jewish life for the past 2500 years that even during the times of a center in Eretz Yisrael, or a longing for it, there have been strong centers of Judaism outside the land. The fact that Jews like me affirmatively choose to live in America as members of Am Yisrael does not undermine Israel at all. One of our roles as American Zionists is to explain this to people around us – the uniqueness of Jewish peoplehood in Israel and America.
Zionism is a movement of moral and spiritual excellence. Rabbi Hartman put it this way in an address to the 2007 Reform movement biennial: “The birth of the State of Israel provided Judaism with an unprecedented opportunity of permeating and actively shaping all aspects of society. Whether in areas of political theory or economic policy, religious practice or ethical conduct, human rights or environmental care, hospitals or army bases, classrooms or courthouses - Israel is where Jewish values meet the road.”
American Jewish Zionists should see ourselves as partners in Zionist excellence. Rabbi Hartman made two points about this in his 2007 talk. First, American Jews have unique intellectual and cultural contributions to make to Israel. If Israel is a unique lab for Jewish values, the American Jewish experience has been a longer and better-established lab around issues of religious freedom, minority-majority relationships, and ideological pluralism.
It is because we are in America that Jewish thinkers and leaders have had to formulate a Torah of concern for human beings and not just for Jews. A Torah of responsibility for the whole earth and not just the Jewish community. It is because of America that totalitarianism and technology forced Jewish thinking to ask questions about the ethics of power and the limits on human innovation. In the past few decades, Israeli and American Jewish thinkers have indeed become thought partners and innovators around all of these issues.
Hence Rabbi Hartman’s second point about the role of American Jewish Zionists as partners. He charged each of us to find that aspect of Israel and the Israeli striving for moral excellence that inspires us. It could be climate, or bioethics, or human rights, or aging… chances are the answer is a moral passion you already have here. Learn about its unique Israeli shape. Connect to the people who drive it and work on it there. Join those projects and institutions in any way that’s available – by taking a role, by contributing or investing money, by advocacy.
It is as partners that we move from vicarious spectators, and from our own inferiority complex about not being Israeli, to an affirmative Jewish identity as American Zionists. Israel needs this kind of American Zionists. It’s a responsibility, and it’s work.
The responsibility and the work do not come without trouble. Indeed, Rabbi Hartman says what Israel and the Jewish people need from American Zionists often is for us to be “the troubled committed.” We need to feel issues that trouble Israelis as our own issues. Sometimes we need to be more troubled than many Israelis are, and bring that to them.
But commitment first, as American Zionists. The troubled-ness of the noncommitted, the non-Zionist, is not likely to make a difference on any contentious issue. Not in Israel and not here among the many people around us who purport to care about what happens in Israel but have no commitment to it.
Every year especially around Chanukkah and around the Fourth of July, I reflect on my decision to embrace America and American Zionism. And I resolve to do both of those better, with more follow-through and more clarity to myself and as a teacher. For those of us in New Hampshire who will always be American, consider becoming a truly American Zionist.
These were my words at services on Shabbat morning.
I may have been the last adult in New York City to be aware that the attack on the World Trade Center towers had occurred. Laurie went to work in midtown, and I was home with two-and-a-half-year-old Alex getting ready for an upcoming trip to my parents, both to celebrate my father’s 65th birthday and to lead Rosh Hashanah services at our family’s small congregation. Alex and I were sitting in his room going through his long sleeve shirts from the previous winter to find something warm enough to take. At some point we were going to go out to Forest Hills High School and vote in the primary for Mayor Giuliani’s successor. The phone rang a few times in the other room, more than usual for a morning, but we were busy and I ignored it.
Around 11 the phone rang again and so I picked it up. It was Laurie, calling from her office in Midtown, and she said something like, “Did you hear what happened? It’s the biggest terrorist attack ever.” I assumed she meant some horrible thing happened in Israel; that’s what terrorism meant to me. But she told me the World Trade Center towers were gone.
With the two-year-old I didn’t want to be watching this on TV, so I waited for a minute when Alex was out of the den so I could turn it on. There was a view from a camera on top of the one of the TV stations, showing the smoke. Alex came into the room and said, “Helicopter” – and immediately I turned it off. My sister Ellen was also working in Manhattan, and after another call or two I knew they’d just have to walk home to Queens, for Laurie an eight-mile walk. I reached as much of our family as I could to tell them we were safe, and at some point it was hard to get a cell signal; the frequencies were taken over for security needs. Alex and I walked through the neighborhood to pass the time. It was a beautiful day, with F-16s flying across the sky.
A few days later we decided to fly to Minnesota – making the decision it was safe, very aware we were making a life-and-death decision for our toddler. At La Guardia, one of the military people at the security scanners confiscated the tiny nail clipper from our carry-on. We all knew the hijackers had gotten unlikely sharp weapons onto the plane and I felt a bit embarrassed for bringing one and tying up the soldier. Leaving New York seemed so strange – going away from what seemed like the only place anything was happening in the world, where God’s eyes even seemed to be riveted. It felt too like breaking faith. It was so quiet in St. Paul on a weekday afternoon. One of the first things I did when I got settled at my parents was to call the local mosque even though I didn’t know anyone there, to leave them a message of friendship on behalf of the Jewish community.
There are so many spiritual imperatives every 9/11 and especially on an anniversary of significance like this one twenty years later. First and foremost is to remember and honor those who were murdered.
The second to last name alphabetically on the 9/11 memorial is Andrew Steven Zucker. I didn’t realize I knew anyone in the towers until at some point the New York Times published their exhaustive list with photos. I saw his name and a familiar face. For one year Andrew was “Coach Zuck” at the Solomon Schechter school where I worked. He was in his late 20s, and he was the first young, big coach-y looking coach we had. Other than passing hellos, I think I only really talked to him when I had to tell him that one of my Jewish programs would be interfering with one of his practices. I learned since that he was a law associate at Harris Beach, on the 85th floor of the South Tower, and that seven people said he helped them escape down the stairs and saved their lives. He davened every morning before work there. A Torah scroll was written in his memory at the Riverdale Jewish Center, and it was read for the first time on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 at Monday morning minyan. May Andrew’s memory, and the memory of all who were murdered that day or who died as a result of the day be a blessing.
The second spiritual imperative is to call this what it was: a mass murder and an act of pure evil. Evilhas to be part of our vocabulary. Enemies has to be part of our vocabulary. We have prayed this morning already that we overcome evil -- our own for sure, and that evil in the world be destroyed beyond even our own ability to destroy it. We pray for safety from our enemies. We don’t like to apply words like evil and enemy too specifically; we distance ourselves from these words even as we say them in Hebrew. Yet the terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers and crashed into the Pentagon and who tried to fly Flight 93 into Washington were enemies of America, enemies of Jews, enemies of freedom and universal human dignity. Enemies of equality for women. They attacked and murdered innocent people, deliberately and with forethought and with satisfaction.
We should not be distracted from this by any reflection or regret we properly have over what followed, the wrongs of our own decisions and our own wars that went wrong and took many innocent lives.
The attackers chose deliberately not only to kill indiscriminately, but to attack centers of government, military, and finance. They attacked the things many Americans had come to lack confidence in, to make it harder for us to stand up for ourselves and see ourselves clearly. They dared us to look in the mirror. But our freedom, our strength, and our prosperity are so much more than any flaws in them. They are worth defending and strengthening and perfecting. They are a tremendous gift in the history of the world.
We have to look straight into the reality that small, disciplined groups can magnify evil and harm and death. There are parts of the human world beyond bargaining and incentives and change. We cannot strengthen what is good without acknowledging this.
The third spiritual imperative is awe at the goodness that sprang into action immediately. The Andrew Zuckers. The first responders who went back into buildings to look for more people to save, knowing very well they might not survive, as many did not. The people who retook Flight 93 and saved so many lives at the cost of their own. I remember the evening of 9/11 how the site of the Twin Towers had become a well-organized place for rescue and cleanup. In the face of the unthinkable, people did not miss a beat around their responsibilities, even as they improvised. There could have been chaos and pandemonium, or at the very least paralysis. Instead there was determined work to seek anyone who might still be alive.
We came to know stories like Gander, Newfoundland, where international flights back to the U.S. were diverted and a small town took care of strangers even in their homes – it’s the subject of the amazing musical “Come From Away.” President Bush came to the side of Muslims in our country to warn us against blaming the wrong people.
I had always been a reluctant New Yorker, living there because of rabbinical school and staying because of Laurie’s work and my own opportunities. The last five years we lived there, the rough city seemed transformed, toward a graciousness and helpfulness that hadn’t been there in the same measure. At least that was my experience.
We have to view this part of the story and the evil together, and think very hard about what it means. Margaret Mead said famously, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Nineteen hijackers committed mass murder. Twice a minyan, not even, that’s all. It is easier to destroy than to build. How many multiples of nineteen are there committed to good on an equal scale, on a lifesaving scale, a Gander, Newfoundland scale?
So the fourth spiritual imperative is to take responsibility for how we have responded as a nation and as Jews over the twenty years since. The instincts to bring democracy and freedom to the Middle East were good, even though motives are always mixed. We shouldn’t be hard on ourselves for not looking down on people in a part of the world so unfamiliar to most of us, to the vast majority of Americans and Jews. We believed and still should believe that people in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East deserve democracy and are capable of freedom and prosperity. I supported both wars when they started, in Afghanistan and even Iraq. Yet it was clear even to me from very early on that we were not willing to be accountable. For caring about the people in those countries, for bothering to learn about them or build connections with them commensurate with our interference in their world. Some people have done incredible work – some of our military, some of our NGOs -- and they have brought education and health and fierce friendship. As we go forward, leaving behind what we have left behind, we need to consider who is left whom we still owe.
And we still have an obligation to learn more about the Muslim world and about Islam itself. I said this ten years ago on this anniversary, and while I have learned more, it’s certainly not ten years worth of more. We all, myself surely included, let our leaders and elected representatives let themselves off the hook in terms of oversight and engagement. But at least we can learn and connect here in our local community. In fits and starts, some of us have tried to connect to the local mosque from the shul and through the Interfaith Council. Yesterday, Jeff (our Board president) and I sent a message of friendship to the Islamic Society of Greater Nashua, for day when surely it is more difficult than usual to be a Muslim in America.
We have drawn some wrong lessons from the aftermath of the two wars, and the collateral effects in Syria and other places. It’s becoming easier in the past twenty years to give up on the societies of the Middle East and to see the Palestinians in particular as fundamentally interwoven with terror. Yes, American power cannot do everything, and the destiny of faraway lands is not up to us primarily. But we have many powers and things to offer. And again our conviction that all people deserve freedom, that women’s rights and girls’ education are not only for some in this world -- those convictions are still right and we cannot run away from them.
There are people standing up to the Taliban, and people still learning how to do good work in Afghanistan. We owe them. I think the people who were architects of our bad decisions and those who supported them like me have a special obligation. I read the reflections of nearly twenty key American government and military leaders from the post-9/11 period in Politico the other day on what we did wrong, and truthfully what sickened me more than the mistakes they acknowledged was how many of them are now making their living as lobbyists and in the 1% sector, and how few are in public service and academia. They have run away from debts they still owe.
And my fifth spiritual imperative is for any of us who identify as religious people of any faith, to be a Kiddush Hashem, to do honor publicly to the Divine Name in what we do and what we say. Rabbi Aryeh Klapper wrote about this in the days following 9/11. The hijackers are in a long line of mass murderers claiming divine sanction. They weaken the ability of any faith to be seen as a positive force and not a divisive one. To be religious and to identify publicly as religious after 9/11, we have to be far from even the first cousins, even the second cousins of the attackers and their ideology, in our own faiths. We need to publicly repudiate our own Kahanists – our Muslim-haters, our Arab-haters, our Ben Gvirs and Smotrichs.
So a lot of spiritual imperatives, not just one or two, on this anniversary. I remember that first Rosh Hashanah trying to find words in my small pulpit, thinking what a burden President Bush had taken on by declaring war on evil itself. How fortunate we were to have a place and a haven of time a week after the attacks -- to gather together, to take time out to think about good and evil, to humble ourselves about what we can do and briefly trust the work of fighting all evil back to God. Just for a couple days. So it’s fitting that we are remembering and reflecting now during the ten days of teshuvah. What will we learn, how will we change, how will we honor those who died on 9/11 and in everything that flowed from that day? The answers are not easy, but they will flow as everything does from love. Love of those whose memory is precious; love of the American ideals that made the attacks hurt even more; love of each other in this gathering today and in this country; love of those who responses over the past twenty years have uplifted and inspired us. May we find our way in teshuvah, through all of that love.
This is the D'var Torah I gave on Saturday, July 17, Shabbat Chazon -- the Shabbat preceding the fast of Tisha B'Av, which commemorates the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the Romans.
I want to tell you a story from the Talmud often taught at this time of year, around the fast of Tisha B’Av. But first I want you to take a minute and think about the Jewish person who is most unlike you as a Jew. The Jew or the Jewish group you find it hard to admire, or who is hardest for you to feel connected to as a fellow Jew.
Here is the story (Babylonian Talmud Gittin 55b):
Because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, Jerusalem was destroyed.
It happened this way: A certain man had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy called Bar Kamtza. He once made a party and said to his servant, “Go and bring Kamtza.” The servant went and brought Bar Kamtza.
When the man who gave the party found Bar Kamtza there he said, “See, you are my enemy; what are you doing here? Get out!” Said the other: “Since I am already here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.”
Said the host: “Absolutely not.”
“Then let me give you half the cost of the party.”
The host refused.
“Then let me pay for the whole party.”
Still the host refused, and took him by the hand and threw him out.
Said Bar Kamtza, “Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against them to the government.”
He went and said to the emperor, “The Jews are rebelling against you.”
Said the emperor, “How can I know that this is true?”
“Send them an offering,” said Bar Kamtza, “and see whether they will offer it on the altar.”
So he sent with him a fine calf. While on the way he made a blemish on its upper lip (or some say, on the white of its eye)—in a place where we Jews count it a blemish but they Romans do not.
The rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the government. Said Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas to them: “People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar.” They then proposed to kill Bar Kamtza so that he should not go and inform against them, but Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas said to them, “Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death?”
Rabbi Yochanan thereupon remarked: “Because of the scrupulousness of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt, and we ourselves exiled from our land.”
This story from the Talmud is retold often around Tisha B’Av, part of the idea that the Second Temple was destroyed because of gratuitous hatred among Jews, sin’at chinam.
There is a lot here in the story and I’m not going to give you a complete analysis. But a few things stand out particularly to me this year:
The last issue is particularly worth our attention, always and especially this year. Jews argue and Jews don’t all get along always. Conflict is built into Torah and Talmud, and into Jewish culture. The good version of this is called machloket l’shem shamayim, disagreement and even division for the sake of Heaven. It goes hand in hand with Ahavat Yisrael, love of the Jewish people and love of Jews generally, beyond one’s own community and the Jews at your own Shabbes table or your own synagogue.
I do think what happened here is that a Jewish fight got turned into a Roman one, and the rabbis stood there and let it happen. They didn’t ask what Jewish ethics had to say about these two people in an uncomfortable situation, who maybe were enemies for a good reason. The rabbis got stuck on technical rituals questions and didn’t see the bigger human picture. So the Talmud here doesn’t blame the destruction of the Temple on the Romans; or on Bar Kamtza, the Jew who sold out Jews to the Romans; but on the rabbis who could have turned this around.
Bar Kamtza didn’t act well but we understand he was hurt. The rabbis didn’t act well because they didn’t put ritual and relationships together. And they got so focused on Bar Kamtza that they forget the Romans were a much worse enemy, a much bigger issue. The rabbis and Kamtza and bar Kamtza could have all gotten on the same side of that.
I’m very much feeling like our Jewish community’s conflicts today are being Romanized, so to speak. Americanized. And this story and the Tisha B’Av fast day are reminders to deal with our conflicts Jewishly. Ahavat Yisrael for me has always been about forcing myself to ask: Who is the Jew who is least like me, whom I have the hardest time feeling connected to. Then looking for a connection of friendship or admiration with someone in such a group. For me it’s a nice long list of Jews different from me who are hard for me. It’s charedi Jews, and West Bank settlers, and completely secular you-can’t- possibly-lure-me-into-shul-no-matter-how-good-the-music-or-food-or-your-sermon. I have to work at that. That’s not what modern day Romans do. Rather than get sucked in more to American-style conflict, I can find ways to love and connect that don’t sell out my integrity. I might even find something that my own Bar Kamtza and I both care about, a moral issue that we can work on together.
There is a tremendous example of Ahavat Yisrael that took place recently, from the new Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett. The speech he gave in the Knesset introducing the leaders in his new government was a like mashup of announcing the starting lineup for the Celtics at the Garden and a book club summary of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.
Prime Minister Bennett presented by name, with affection, the leader of each party in his government and the specific good each one was going to work on for Israel. More of these partners than not are ideologically opposed to him in some profound way. I know this was politics, but he turned a moment of just enough votes in the Knesset to an expansive and generous and forward-looking, hopeful moment. It went even beyond Jews, as the new prime minister even gave a shout out for Mansour Abbas of the Arab Ra’am party.
Bennett did this while the country was hardly out of war with Gaza and just beyond fighting in the streets between Jews and Arabs. He did this with all the emotion in the air around former Prime Minister Netanyahu, and he did this while death threats were being made members of his political party and the new government. I would say you should read the speech, but it’s not soaring, it’s not a great read. It’s just the fact of it. Prime Minister Bennett found a way for Kamtza and Bar Kamtza to fight the Romans instead of each other. And the Romans are worth fighting together even if you’re not going to be actually friends. In my proudest, Jewish-egotistical way I would say only a Jew could have pulled this off.
So we might all learn from that. We should try to find a way to say something true and sincere and generous about Jews we’re not like. And as part of that, we have to love ourselves as Jews – you for your own Jewish life, us for our shul’s Jewish life. We have to do better at making sure that there are many good and admirable things that a Jew so different would say about us.
There is a cost to Ahavat Yisrael, to putting this much value on loving all other Jews. Whenever you set aside even for a minute an ideological debate, you are putting on hold a belief you hold because other people’s wellbeing depends on that core belief. There’s a cost, no doubt.
But Ahavat Yisrael is a model not for when to give up our principles, but for how to enlarge our world. For saying: there’s a person unlike me who isn’t only my opponent, who isn’t all the timeworking against what’s important to me, and who I hate to say might be a role model for me in some way.
When I think of the charedi community or the settlements, I know there’s a tight-knit quality and a commitment to taking care of each other that I want more of in our community and that I want to imitate. When I think of the most secular Jews I know, I often find an honesty, a straightforward path toward moral commitments, that I want to work at more.
We Jews have more history than anyone of suffering because of our divisions -- losing life and losing our land and losing each other. We also have more history than anyone of enduringbecause we figured out how to be divided. We are resilient because we’ve learned to be at the same party, as Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. Our divisions have not destroyed us; sometimes they have helped us grow. I know my own Judaism is stronger because of the Orthodoxy I reject in my own life, because of the Reform I reject in my own life, because of the Israeliness I chose not to pursue in my own life.
Who knows if this is the gift we’re supposed to find for our time. To find our Ahavat Yisrael, our love of Jews, and machloket l’shem shamayim, division focused around things that matter. Who knows, we could spread this out to the Romans, to the Americans. At least we can try not to be swept up on other people’s terms in the divisiveness of the moment.
So as we go into Tisha B’av, let’s each think about the Jew who pushes our buttons, whether that’s here locally or anywhere in the Jewish world. Find something to admire or like or chuckle about. Find an idea from them that challenges you in a good way, and be thankful and gracious. Imagine a party we can all be at together -- or at least a Kiddush after services.
I am posting this just after seeing that the U.S. House has voted to impeach President Trump for his actions leading to the violence at the Capitol one week ago. This is from the D'var Torah I gave on the Shabbat of Shmini Atzeret, the end of the festival of Sukkot, Saturday, October 10, 2020. This was a few weeks before Election Day. It is a charge about peace during the difficult time that was coming and that continues in this country. I drew out how the symbols and rituals connected to "Sukkat Shalom" (a temporary shelter of peace) might guide us. We are still in a time that requires the kind of Shalom-making I describe here. That Shalom is more than avoidance, and it has a moral and spiritual cost even though it is an imperative. This is not all I have to say today and in the coming days.
What’s next for us after our holy season in 5781 is the election season of 2020…. My own week of Sukkot has been about contemplating Sukkat Shalom, Sukkot as a training about peace.
The Geonim taught that the blessing over Lulav and Etrog is said each morning of Sukkot right after the blessings of peace that conclude the Amidah – the Birkat Kohanim(the priestly blessing of peace), Sim Shalom, Oseh Shalom.
They taught that we need to accumulate blessings of peace on the way to Lulav and Etrog, because the ritual involves four species that are so different and distant and hard to put together into one. Our tradition takes the four species to represent vastly different kinds of people. Palm, citron, myrtle and willow have smell and taste, or one or the other, or neither one at all. The midrash compares this to how Jews come in different combinations – those with great Torah and great mitzvot (deeds), those with great Torah and few mitzvot, those with great mitzvot but little Torah, those with very little or none of either. Holding the four species together in one bundle is about the difficulty of holding together such a group. Four species that don’t by their nature automatically come together.
In that bundle, the Etrog looks like the heart. It has both a beautiful fragrance and a sharp taste – just as those with both Torah wisdom and goodness are the heart of a community. But the community is the whole bundle. The four species are so different and have different logics to how they live, and we are commanded to bring them together in one bundle of peace. Not a surface peace, but a challenging and dynamic one, a peace that has to be demonstrated each day of Sukkot. A peace that requires effort, working your way by concentrating on constant reminders of what Shalom could be. You cannot fulfill the mitzvah of Lulav unless the bundle is one you yourself have acquired. There’s no shortcut – you cannot use a stolen Lulav in Jewish law. You cannot have peace without acquiring it legitimately. There is no shortcut. You cannot have peace without actually wrestling with difference and division in the logics of how people live.
In the coming month until Election Day, and a period of time to follow, a fundamental imperative will be Shalom – peace that is dynamic, acquired, recognizing difference and tension, built around Torah and righteous action. Difficult peace.
At the heart of this will be anyone willing to be like an Etrog. A heart connected to what seem like different species, to people who are strong in wisdom and knowledge, and who are weak in them; to people who are strong in actions of goodness, and who are weak in them.
How fascinating that the Torah did not ask us to take a sweeter fruit instead. The Etrog, the heart, has to announce the fragrance it has, and it has to challenge with the sharp taste it has. The Etrog is held next to the Lulav, the palm that draws its strength from deep sources, from deep water that is true no matter what storms are in the sky or not in the coming season, no matter what water is flowing on the surface or not.
I am wearing this kippah today, the one with the Jewish star and the American flag, and will continue to wear it daily through the election and beyond. My nation, my values, my community. The Shalom imperative of this next period is something I am taking on along with other clergy leaders in our area. Hareini m’kabel alai – we take it on for our congregations and for this Nashua area.
This month and the next few are not going to be the months when we reach the long-term and deep solutions we need in America. We are not going to solve the issues of justice and suffering while we are voting, and counting votes, and in the waiting period that might follow. We are not going to be able to get to work on long-term solutions in the period right after the election is settled while many people are hurt and confused and disoriented and angry, which will be the case for more people than ever, even more than today, no matter who wins.
So as we take down our ritual Sukkot, we need to build another kind of Sukkat Shalom, a temporary and fragile Sukkah held up by those who are committed to peace on many levels – to nonviolent responses, to reaching out even to those who are deficient in Torah or deficient in good deeds or deficient in both. To speak to and draw out more of any Torah they have, any good deeds they have. This is a Sukkat Shalom we will need to hold up for a period of time but not for longer than necessary, to enable us to walk truly into a new American year, a new phase in this country.
We will hold it up, myself and my clergy colleagues and any of you who choose to join in this work. We will hold it up as a shelter, as a house of Sarah and Avraham where any can talk who is willing to talk, even if you are not ready yet to talk toward agreement. We will hold it up as a Sanctuary, for anyone who needs a quiet and safe place to pray or reflect or for any who are disoriented. This place here where I am standing, and other churches in our community, will be those shelters of Shalom.
Our clergy will hold up a Sukkah of peace in the public square, on Main Street and in the papers, by calling publicly for nonviolence before and after the election. We will do what we did four years ago in our Men’s Club political breakfast, when I got a commitment from then-Senator Ayotte and now-Senator Hassan to meet a group of us two days after the election to make a public show of Shalom. We have begun to approach the authorities in Nashua to offer ourselves, because we need to prepare and we need our authorities to be prepared. One spark in the wrong place can cause things to get out of hand. We need people of Shalom to be driving the response to any conflict we have, not people of violence.
A time that elevates peace above other things for a time means assuming responsibility for those whose suffering will not be addressed in the period of Sukkat Shalom. The suffering because of COVID-19 and around racial injustice is not distributed evenly, and calling for peace first means taking responsibility for delaying what many people need. So I and my clergy colleagues need to back that up with a commitment to stand up for those bearing the brunt nonetheless, and to make sure that peace is not an excuse to push off everything else indefinitely. A Sukkah that can stand for too long is no longer a kosher Sukkah. Already, the conflicts in our society that have pushed off the moral imperatives of our day give us much to repent for.
And if in this time of seeking peace any group is targeted for intimidation or worse, the Sukkat Shalom must shelter and protect them, and not trade them for a false peace. That could be us, by the way, who are targeted – Jews generally; members of our community who are people of color or LGBTQ+ or immigrants. People will stand by us if that happens and we need to stand up for others.
Shalom means lifting up the example of those leaders who embody a true solidarity. We need those models, especially in our political leaders. It has fallen too hard on local leaders to be the only figures of such solidarity.
Shalom means holding to account those who advocate policies we want but who are themselves divisive. It means asking those we know on the other side politically to do the same when they point the finger only our way.
So I will wear this kippah to show this commitment to Shalom. In this spirit I have been reaching out and will continue to do so – to fellow religious leaders in the area who are my longtime partners and my emerging ones, to leaders of groups I do not have relationships so deep with, to leaders of groups whose vulnerability I worry about. To members of this congregation whose commitments I respect and admire, to members of this congregation who express themselves politically with whom I am solidarity even though we do not have the same outlook on social questions of the day.
We will need in the coming months some backing off and cooling off, and some compromise, and those will be the right thing at times as long as we don’t mistake them for the truest Shalom. They will not last on their own. They haven’t until now. We have tried too long in America to find Shalom only by cooling off and compromising and pushing off until later.
But real Shalom is not avoidant and it is not shallow. It is not the lowest common denominator.
Peace comes only through people who are like the Etrog -- who probe their deeds and probe their Torah, who have both an inviting fragrance and a sharp flavor, who know that even a fruit that is beautiful has to be cultivated again and again.
The America we need will not come from violence, nor will it come from avoiding conflict. It will come in the period following a Sukkat Shalom, a dynamic and hard peace held up by those who will step forward and actively hold it.
I hope that my fears and preparations are overblown and not so needed – that the worst we have is unhappiness this month and next, not outright conflict – but the preparation is good no matter what. Though my words are solemn, I speak them in the same hope I taught on Rosh Hashanah: seeing myself and others step up in worthwhile action on behalf of people we care about, including you and others.
I shall keep wearing this kippah. As we turn to Yizkor (memorial prayers), I will reach to the example of ancestors who faced challenges as serious as the ones we do and pray that their merits will inspire and bless us, as we finally step out of Elul and Tishrei into the year it is our destiny to build for our country.