Tuesday, May 31, 2011

MEMRI TV Clip #2952

Below is a clip from a May 20th rally in Gaza. In the rally marchers chant slogans praising Osama bin Laden and denouncing the US.  It is difficult to discern how many are present at this rally.  Nonetheless it provides more troubling evidence of the hatred filling the streets of Gaza.

I continue to hope and pray that the Palestinians of Gaza, and in particular their Hamas leadership, will focus more on building something rather than destroying others. But with each of these clips I become more and more pessimistic about the hopes for peace.

Bamidbar Sermon

The greatest king of Israel was David, yet he sinned a number of times.  Interestingly one of his sins was exactly what Moses does in this week’s Torah portion.  According to the Bible David was punished for ordering a census.  The Book of Samuel reports: “David reproached himself for having numbered the people.  And David said to the Lord, ‘I have sinned grievously in what I have done.  Please, O Lord, remit the guilt of Your servant, for I have acted foolishly.’” (2 Samuel 24)

Apparently the counting of the tribes, the numbering of the people, reported in Parshat Bamidbar, was an exception, not the norm.  Moses takes a census of the people in order to muster the troops and determine how many battalions he has before his successor, Joshua, makes war on the inhabitants of the Promised Land.  This contrast between Moses and David brings to light Judaism’s discomfort with counting.  Throughout our history the numbering of people was greeted with great hesitation.

We do not live in such times.  We count how many friends we have—on Facebook.  We list how many followers we have—on Twitter.  We have the Forbes 500.  We make endless lists of people.  We count our possessions.  We count other people’s money, as well as our own. 

We count how many members belong to our clubs, and our synagogues.  The modern American Jewish scene appears obsessed with counting.  How many Jews are there?  Is it only 12 million, or perhaps 14 million?  This is of course understandable.  It was not so long ago that we lost six million.  How many more would we be if not for the Holocaust?  How different the Jewish landscape might be if not for our calamitous loss 65 years ago. 

But in the near obsession with tallying our numbers we may lose our essence.  This is why the tradition does not allow us to actually count towards a minyan.  Instead we use a biblical verse with ten words.  Psalm 28 is among the favorite choices: “Save Your people and bless Your treasured; care for them and sustain them forever.”  If we cannot complete the verse then we do not have the required number and the community is not “sustained”.  This is preferred over counting one, two, three…

By contrast today every birthday is considered momentous occasions.  My grandparents however were never 100% sure of their birthdays.  When it became more commonplace to celebrate birthdays it was miraculously determined that they were both born on the same day in the same year.

For their generation counting was seen as bad luck.  But we live in an age when we are over confident with our blessings.  Counting everything suggests such unwarranted confidence.  Perhaps it would be wise to take the tradition’s caution to heart.  We might be better served not to count so much.  In fact counting does not add meaning to our lives. 

It is not the number of friends one is surrounded with, but the depth of friendships.  It is not the size of the congregation, but the spirit of the community.  It is not the number of awards, or grades, or wealth, but whether or not we succeed in bringing blessings to the world around us.  These are my beliefs.

This week we also find ourselves nearing the ending of the counting of the Omer.  We count from Passover to Shavuot (the holiday celebrated in two weeks on June 7th).  The tradition is that we count the days, as we would count towards a birthday, until we receive the Torah on Mount Sinai.  Shavuot of course celebrates the giving of the Torah.  Passover celebrates our freedom from Egypt.  The two must be married to each other.  And thus we count from freedom to its meaning.

Our freedom from Egypt finds meaning in the Torah.  We only count to the gift of Torah.  Only the meaning and depth of Torah is worthy of our counting.  Everything else we would do well to observe the superstitions of old.  Count far less.  Focus instead on the people standing before us.

All we should count toward is meaning and depth.  And all that can be found in Torah.

By the Numbers

By the Numbers - by Liel Leibovitz > Tablet Magazine
A worthy read regarding Netanyahu's recent speech to Congress.
Ours, alas, is the era of unreal numbers, from the falsified spreadsheets of Bernie Madoff to the felonious schemes of the equally criminal yet tragically unpunished swindlers behind the subprime mortgage bubble. Bluffing discreetly on balance sheets is bad enough; do it in the open, on the largest imaginable stage, and we’re headed down a dangerous road.
Unfortunately, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of the Congress earlier this week was a master class of numeric (and other) inaccuracies. Because these things matter—they matter very much—let us, in the spirit of this week’s parasha, do the Jewish thing and set the record straight.
Netanyahu said: The vast majority of the 650,000 Israelis who live beyond the 1967 lines reside in neighborhoods and suburbs of Jerusalem and Greater Tel Aviv.
Actually, there are 304,569 Israelis living in the West Bank, according to the Israel Defense Forces. Add to that East Jerusalem—which, according to most credible sources, is home to about 200,000 Israelis—and you hit the 500,000 mark. Even if one chooses to be generous and give the prime minister these East Jerusalemites in his count, one has to wonder, as Jonathan Lis recently did in Haaretz, why Netanyahu, who later on in his speech roared that “Jerusalem must never again be divided,” would possibly choose to include the residents of the undividable capital in the overall tally of the contested populace.
In Judea and Samaria, the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers. We are not the British in India. We are not the Belgians in the Congo. This is the land of our forefathers, the Land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one God, where David set out to confront Goliath.
David, actually, swung his fateful sling in the valley of Elah, near modern-day Beit Shemesh, which is squarely within the boundaries of Israel proper. And if Netanyahu truly believes Israel is nothing like the Brits or the Belgians, he is welcome, of course, to do with the West Bank as had once been done with Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, and annex them. Until then, however, the prime minister has to choose: If he wishes to follow the Bible as his unsurpassable guide to realpolitik, let him declare so openly and allow his constituents to support or reject his theological aspirations. But if he wishes to guide the ship of state according to the acceptable, rational norms of Western democracies, all that blessed biblical stuff is, alas, rather irrelevant. Seen from that perspective, asserting martial law on a territory and its citizens, setting up an intricate bureaucracy of governance, oppressing any aspirations for self-governance, and insisting time and again that the natives are too corrupt and incompetent to govern themselves sounds like it’s one punch bowl away from feeling right at home at the Bengal Club.
But instead of hurling oneself against the firm wall of slurs and untruths Netanyahu erected in his Washington speech, let us read the parasha instead, and recall the spirit, sacred and fierce and urgent, that urges us to keep our accounting strict and strictly honest.
Netanyahu's and Obama's speeches are only the beginning of the debate.  Given that we are unable to agree about the "facts" makes this discussion even more vexing.

Friday, May 27, 2011

MEMRI TV Clip #2949

Below is a depressing clip. In it Hamas Foreign Liaisons Chief Osama Hamdan states that armed confrontation will continue and that Israelis must return to their countries of origin.

How can peace be made with those who seek Israel's destruction? This is yet more evidence that the Hamas-Fatah accord is the single worst development in recent months.  It is hard to watch this Western dressed spokesman offer his medieval views.  What could possibly be wrong with two nations living side by side in peace?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Behar Sermon

What follows is the sermon delivered on Friday, May 13.

The Torah portion makes clear that the land of Israel is particularly dear.  It is of course the holy land.  This is why it alone is granted a sabbatical year.

One might therefore think, especially with the success of modern Zionism, that only the land of Israel is holy.  But in fact all lands are holy.  The earth, the very ground beneath our feet, is holy. 

Our blessings do not say, for example, “Thank You God for the fruit of Israel,” but instead “for the fruit of the earth—borei pri ha-adamah.”  The Psalms declare, in a decidedly universal tone, “The earth is Adonai’s and all that it holds; the world and all its inhabitants.  For God founded it upon the ocean, set on the farthest streams.” (Psalm 24)

The Hebrew word for earth here in this text is ha-aretz, the land.  Yet the intention is clear.  It is the earth, the world, all lands that is intended.    Psalm 104 declares: “How many are the things You have made, O Lord; You have made them all with wisdom; the earth is full of Your creations.”  This psalm goes on to provide a litany of God’s earthly creations.

Recently I have been thinking about this psalm and of course about the power of nature.  Ironically it is often nature’s fury that reminds me of nature’s majesty.  There were the tsunamis and tornadoes.  And now there is the flooding of the Mississippi.  We see on the news renewed evidence of the psalmist’s words: “You make springs gush forth in torrents; they make their way between the hills.”

The psalmist continually reminds us.  “God looks at the earth and it trembles; God touches the mountains and they smoke.”  And so I have no choice but to: “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; all my life I will chant hymns to my God.  May my prayer be pleasing to Him; I will rejoice in the Lord.” 

As we again stand before the awesome power of nature, we have no choice but to sing God’s praises.  At times that is all that can rescue us from the earth’s recent fury.  We require such reverence not only before God but before nature.

For too long we have believed that we are masters of nature, that we can control nature, that we can tame the mighty Mississippi.  But its name alone should suggest otherwise.  We can build better locks and dams and even higher levees, but nature cannot be tamed.  In fact some have suggested that our lock and dam system has made catastrophic floods more likely.  Furthermore we know now that these dams prevent vital nutrients from reaching the river’s delta.

I am not of course suggesting that we give up this effort entirely.  Reverence combined with knowledge would be a much better approach.  We would do well to remind ourselves of God’s admonition to Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?  Speak if you have understanding.”

And so we must relearn this truth.  All lands are indeed holy.  It is not just one land.  It is not just our backyard but all the earth.  Zionism implies that only one land is holy.  In fact Israel’s Declaration of Independence has contributed to this misunderstanding when it states: “Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, was the birthplace of the Jewish people.  Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped.”

But this is inaccurate and a misreading of history.  The Torah was given in Sinai, in the wilderness.  It was given there to make clear that it was given to all.  It was given there moreover so that no land could claim the Torah as its alone.

Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, is of course my favorite land.  It is my favorite because so much of Jewish history occurred there.  I love nothing more than to hike its wadis and play in its waterfalls.  But it is not the only land.

The reverence for the land that the sabbatical year suggests is something that we must apply to all lands. We must restore a reverence for the earth and the land. We can no longer afford to do whatever we want with any l and. And so let us restore a reverence for the earth in our hearts and souls.

PM Netanyahu's Speech Take 2

On Tuesday, Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the US Congress.  The entire speech can be found here.  It was an excellent speech in which he made a number of important points.  Here are a few of his words.  My commentary again follows.  In bold are what I believe to be his most significant statements.

Israel has no better friend than America. And America has no better friend than Israel. We stand together to defend democracy. We stand together to advance peace. We stand together to fight terrorism. Congratulations America, Congratulations, Mr. President. You got bin Laden. Good riddance!
In an unstable Middle East, Israel is the one anchor of stability. In a region of shifting alliances, Israel is America’s unwavering ally. Israel has always been pro-American. Israel will always be pro-American.

…Of those 300 million Arabs, less than one-half of one-percent are truly free, and they're all citizens of Israel!
This startling fact reveals a basic truth: Israel is not what is wrong about the Middle East. Israel is what is right about the Middle East.
Israel fully supports the desire of Arab peoples in our region to live freely. We long for the day when Israel will be one of many real democracies in the Middle East.

Militant Islam threatens the world. It threatens Islam. I have no doubt that it will ultimately be defeated. It will eventually succumb to the forces of freedom and progress. But like other fanaticisms that were doomed to fail, militant Islam could exact a horrific price from all of us before its inevitable demise.

Leaders who spew such venom, should be banned from every respectable forum on the planet. But there is something that makes the outrage even greater: The lack of outrage. In much of the international community, the calls for our destruction are met with utter silence. It is even worse because there are many who rush to condemn Israel for defending itself against Iran’s terror proxies.

As for Israel, if history has taught the Jewish people anything, it is that we must take calls for our destruction seriously. We are a nation that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust. When we say never again, we mean never again. Israel always reserves the right to defend itself.

The peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan are vital. But they're not enough. We must also find a way to forge a lasting peace with the Palestinians. Two years ago, I publicly committed to a solution of two states for two peoples: A Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state.
I am willing to make painful compromises to achieve this historic peace. As the leader of Israel, it is my responsibility to lead my people to peace.
This is not easy for me. I recognize that in a genuine peace, we will be required to give up parts of the Jewish homeland. In Judea and Samaria, the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers. We are not the British in India. We are not the Belgians in the Congo.
This is the land of our forefathers, the Land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one God, where David set out to confront Goliath, and where Isaiah saw a vision of eternal peace. No distortion of history can deny the four thousand year old bond, between the Jewish people and the Jewish land. 
But there is another truth: The Palestinians share this small land with us. We seek a peace in which they will be neither Israel’s subjects nor its citizens. They should enjoy a national life of dignity as a free, viable and independent people in their own state. They should enjoy a prosperous economy, where their creativity and initiative can flourish.

So now here is the question. You have to ask it. If the benefits of peace with the Palestinians are so clear, why has peace eluded us? Because all six Israeli Prime Ministers since the signing of Oslo accords agreed to establish a Palestinian state. Myself included. So why has peace not been achieved? Because so far, the Palestinians have been unwilling to accept a Palestinian state, if it meant accepting a Jewish state alongside it.
You see, our conflict has never been about the establishment of a Palestinian state. It has always been about the existence of the Jewish state. This is what this conflict is about. In 1947, the United Nations voted to partition the land into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jews said yes. The Palestinians said no. In recent years, the Palestinians twice refused generous offers by Israeli Prime Ministers, to establish a Palestinian state on virtually all the territory won by Israel in the Six Day War.
They were simply unwilling to end the conflict. And I regret to say this: They continue to educate their children to hate. They continue to name public squares after terrorists. And worst of all, they continue to perpetuate the fantasy that Israel will one day be flooded by the descendants of Palestinian refugees.
My friends, this must come to an end. President Abbas must do what I have done. I stood before my people, and I told you it wasn’t easy for me, and I said… "I will accept a Palestinian state." It is time for President Abbas to stand before his people and say… "I will accept a Jewish state."

So I say to President Abbas: Tear up your pact with Hamas! Sit down and negotiate! Make peace with the Jewish state! And if you do, I promise you this. Israel will not be the last country to welcome a Palestinian state as a new member of the United Nations. It will be the first to do so.

In essence Netanyahu clarified a number of points.  Israel is willing to withdraw from a good portion of the West Bank, as long as security guarantees are made, including maintaining an Israeli military presence on Jordan’s border.  Israel would retain the large settlement blocs of Ariel, Gush Etzion and Maale Adumim.  Israel would forever retain control of the entirety of Jerusalem.  This would write the majority of Israelis living outside the Green Line within the State of Israel’s borders.  Furthermore the Palestinian refugee problem would be solved within the newly created Palestinian state.  All of these points appear self-evident.  In reality Netanyahu’s positions offered clarification of what Obama suggested in his speech of last week.  All of this has been the formula for at least the last ten years.  Two times Israelis and Palestinians were near reaching an agreement.  Creative solutions, different from Netanyahu’s positions, were then offered regarding the refugees and Jerusalem.  One such proposal suggested that a peace agreement would philosophically affirm the Palestinian positions on these issues but hue to the Israel position in terms of practice. 

I fear that Netanyahu’s speech is closer to the truth.  Although much of the world views Israel as the stumbling block to peace, the Palestinians and their Arab leaders have created this “catastrophe.”  If Abbas were to come to the Knesset, as Sadat did, and loudly and unequivocally affirm the Jewish State, he would win over the majority of Israelis.  The question is what Netanyahu can do in order to nurture such a move.  What can Netanyahu do to support the likes of Salam Fayyad?  Time is not on our side. 

To be very honest part of the problem is that the world has not by and large bought into the Jewish vision of the State of Israel.  It has affirmed the democratic foundations of the state.  If these democratic foundations continue to be eroded we will most certainly lose even more of the world’s support.  Would we want to go it alone?  Moreover, are we willing to sacrifice these democratic principles?    


This week we begin reading the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, called in English, Numbers.  It is a book filled with a variety of stories.  The people will spend this book journeying through the wilderness (midbar), preparing to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land.  This 40 year journey, its challenges and triumphs, are preparation for what lies ahead, in particular the battles with the Canannites and those who occupy the land of Israel.  There is the story of the spies scouting the land.  There are moments when the people lose faith and question the purpose of their mission.  There are as well other moments when the people rebel against Moses.  And there is this week’s opening chapter, a census of the Israelites.

The plain meaning of the census is clear.  It is a mustering of the troops.  Each tribe is counted, with the exception of the Levites.  Their sole purpose was to tend to the tabernacle and its ritual objects and therefore need not be counted as part of the army.  “Those are the enrollments recorded by Moses and Aaron and by the chieftains of Israel, who were twelve in number, one man to each ancestral house.  All the Israelites, aged twenty years and over, enrolled by ancestral houses, all those in Israel who were able to bear arms—all who were enrolled came to 603,550.”  (Numbers 1:44-46)  What an apparently large army that was!

Yet regardless of the army’s size, the Bible suggests that there is only one reason why Israel succeeds on the battlefield.  “On that occasion, when the Lord routed the Amorites before the Israelites, Joshua addressed the Lord; he said in the presence of the Israelites: ‘Stand still, O sun, at Gibeon, O moon, in the Valley of Aiyalon!’  And the sun stood still and the moon halted, while a nation wreaked judgment on its foes…”  (Joshua 10:12-13)  Ultimately it is God who leads the fight for Israel’s army of 600,000.

When the modern State of Israel was founded its Jewish population was slightly more than this ancient number.  In today’s Israel it is therefore difficult to ignore ancient tropes in its modern achievements.  That is the country’s power. That is the nation’s pull.  It is also of course its danger.

How do we read the Bible and find meaning in its words while not becoming intoxicated by its rhythms?  How can the modern State of Israel remain Jewish while not as well become a land ruled by Joshuas?  Let me be honest and forthright.  Joshua was an extraordinary leader for ancient times.  He took the reins from Moses and successfully led the Israelites into battle for the Promised Land.  Under his leadership the Torah’s promise of living in the land of Israel was achieved. 

Yet Joshua must not serve as a template for a modern leader.  Why?  The answer is simple.  He was no democratic ruler.  The State of Israel must be both Jewish and democratic in order for it to survive in the modern age.  It must be Jewish and democratic in order for it to fulfill the vision of its Zionist founders. 

As I read this week’s portion I find myself torn.  The Bible will always have great pull on my soul.  But I must not allow it to rule over my life.  It can be a great source of unending inspiration, but never the final answer to all modern questions.

And so given this week’s news, I turn as well to its words to draw strength for the future.  Joshua charges the people: “Be strong and resolute; do not be terrified or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)  Joshua’s actions might give me pause.  His words continue to offer inspiration.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Yom Haatzmaut Meditation

On Friday, May 6 we observed Yom Yaatzmaut.  I wrote a meditation exploring our 3,000 year connection to the city of Jerusalem.  In this meditation I explored this history through the Bible, Siddur, medieval poetry and modern songs.  Natalie Tenenbaum composed a beautiful musical piece for piano and clarinet, expertly played by Vasko Dukovski, to give expression to my words and the varied texts I selected.  The voice of the clarinet especially gave expression to those joyful times, like the present, when we can touch the land.  The chords of the piano helped to give voice to the words of the prayerbook and poets.  What follows is a brief excerpt from the meditation’s conclusion. 

Then in our own day the dream is realized.  There are no more dangers of sea travel.  We can board a plane and in less than one day touch the soil of eretz yisrael, the land and cities our ancestors only dreamed of.  The place is different than the dreams of our prayerbooks and poets.   The earthly is not all dreams, but the baruch of successive generations keeps it alive in our hearts.  L’hiyot am chofshi b’artzeinu.  To be a free people in our own land.

The poet of the modern age is Yehudah Amichai.  He too writes about women and love.  He also writes poem after poem about the city in which he lives, Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is a merry-go-round-and-round
From the Old City through all the neighborhoods and back to the Old.
And you can’t get off.  Whoever jumps off puts his life on the line
And whoever gets off at the final round has to pay again
To get back on for the rounds that have no end.
And instead of elephants and painted horses to ride,
There are religions that go up and down and turn on their axis
To the music of oily tunes from the houses of prayer.
Jerusalem is a seesaw; sometimes I dip down
Into past generations, sometimes I rise up to the skies and then
I shriek like a child, feet swinging on high:
I want down, Daddy, I want down,
Abba, get me down.
And that’s how the saints all ascend to heaven,
Like a child screaming, Daddy, I want to stay up here.
Abba, don’t get me down, Avinu Malkeinu,
Leave us up here, Avinu Malkeinu.
And there are days here when everything is sails and more sails,
Even though there’s no sea in Jerusalem, not even a river.
Everything is sails: the flags, the tallisim, the black coats,
The monks’ robes, the kaftans and kaffiyehs,
Young women’s dresses and headdresses,
Torah mantles and prayer rugs, feelings that swell in the wind
And hopes that set them sailing in other directions.
Even my father’s hands, spread out in blessing
[Baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam va-ed.]
My mother’s broad face and Ruth’s faraway death
Are sails, all of them sails in the splendid regatta
On the two seas of Jerusalem:
The sea of memory and the sea of forgetting.

Amicha writes poem after poem.  How to reconcile the dreams with the reality?  How does the heavenly Jerusalem mingle with the earthly?

In the Spring of 1967 Jerusalem’s mayor, Teddy Kollek, organized a song competition.  The theme was Jerusalem.  Naomi Shemer submitted a song, “Jerusalem of Gold.”  The song won the competition at the Musical Festival celebrating Israel’s nineteen years of statehood.  Three weeks later, in the early days of June, Israel won the Six Day War and captured Jerusalem’s Old City from the Jordanians.  The song immediately became the anthem for the war.  The image of crying soldiers standing at the Western Wall became part of the Jewish people’s collective memory.  

Shemer added a new concluding verse:
We have returned to the cisterns,
to the market and to the square. 
A shofar calls out on the Temple Mount in the Old City.
And in the caves in the rock, thousands of suns shine.  
We will once again descend to the Dead Sea by way of Jericho.
Yerushalayim shel zahav,
Jerusalem of gold, of bronze, and of light,
am I not a harp and lyre for all your songs.

We have stood on Jerusalem’s walls.  We have said with prior generations:
Baruch shem kavo malchuto l’olam va-ed.

Our generation is the same, yet different.  Our Jerusalem is happiness built on ruins. Many still cry and lament for what was lost.  They mourn for dreams unrealized, prayers unfulfilled, for a Temple and its sacrifices still not restored.  I instead will only say a blessing for what has been gained.  I will no longer mourn. I will revel in the songs of thousands and thousands of Jews.  I will rejoice that we have returned to this city, the city of Jerusalem, a city of heaven and earth.  I will recall that today, in this unique and blessed age, Jerusalem is no longer in ruins. There may very well be untold ruins beneath the feet. But there is no ruin in the air. Jerusalem is happiness built on ruins.

From Solomon until now one unbroken chain.  Sometimes a cry.  Sometimes a song. 
Always the word Baruch.  Always the people said as one: Baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam va-ed.  We say with our people: Baruch shem kavod malchuto l’olam va-ed.

We say today a blessing.  We are again a free people in our own land, standing again in our city of Jerusalem.

PM Netanyahu's Speech

What follows is Prime Minister Netanyahu's remarks at the AIPAC Policy Conference.  You can watch the video here.  This speech was delivered last night. Again I have highlighted what I believe to be his most important statements.  My commentary follows.  I await his address to the US Congress scheduled for today.

My friends,

To all our supporters in this great hall and to the millions of supporters across this great land, the people of Israel thank you. Thank you for your staunch commitment to Israel's security. Thank you for defending Israel's right to defend itself. Thank you for standing by Israel as it seeks a secure peace.

Now, I heard tonight from all the speakers something that you know - that Israel is America's indispensable ally. You understand that Israel and America stand shoulder to shoulder fighting common enemies, protecting common interests. You know that Israeli innovators help power computers, fight disease, conserve water, clean the planet. Your support for Israel flows from the heart.

You see, it's not just what Israel does. It's what Israel is. Now, let me explain that. Yesterday I had a great day. They let me out. Sara and I could actually go for a walk. And I have to congratulate the American security services. They're a little more generous than ours. So we walked along the Potomac and we got to visit Washington's majestic memorials. I read Jefferson's timeless words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." I read Lincoln's immortal address, "government of the people, for the people, by the people."

Now, let me tell you why these words resonate so powerfully with me and with all Israelis - because they're rooted in ideas first championed by our people, the Jewish people, the idea that all men are created in God's image, that no ruler is above the law, that everyone is entitled to justice. These are revolutionary Jewish ideas, and they were spoken thousands of years ago - when vast empires ruled the earth, vast slave empires ruled the world. And the Jews spoke these truths. 

Israel is the cradle of our common civilization. It's the crucible of our common values. And the modern state of Israel was founded precisely on these eternal values. And this is why Israel's more than 1 million Muslims enjoy full democratic rights. This is why the only place in the Middle East where Christians are completely free to practice their faith is the democratic State of Israel. And this is why Israel, and only Israel, can be trusted to ensure the freedom for all faiths in our eternal capital, the united city of Jerusalem.

My friends, Israel and America have drawn from these deep well springs of our common values. We forged an enduring friendship not merely between our governments, but between our peoples. Support for Israel doesn't divide America. It unites America. It unites the old and the young, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. And, yes, Joe Lieberman, it even unites independents. I want to take this opportunity to salute one of the great senators in my lifetime, a man who's given unbelievable service to his country, America, and has been unbelievably dedicated to Israel and the Jewish people. Thank you, Joe Lieberman.

You see, this broad support for Israel in the United States is a tremendous help and gives tremendous strength to my country. And since Harry Truman, Israel has looked to American presidents to stand by it as we meet the unfolding challenges of a changing world.

Yesterday President Obama spoke about his ironclad commitment to Israel's security. He rightly said that our security cooperation is unprecedented. He spoke of that commitment not just in front of AIPAC. He spoke about it in two speeches heard throughout the Arab world. And he has backed those words with deeds.

I know these are tough economic times. So I want to thank the president and Congress for providing Israel with vital assistance so that Israel can defend itself by itself. I want to thank you all for supporting the Iron Dome missile defense system. A few weeks ago, Hamas terrorists in Gaza fired eight rockets at our cities, at Ashkelon and Beer Sheva. Now, these rockets never reached their targets. Iron Dome intercepted them in midair. For the first time, a missile defense system worked in combat. That's a precedent in military history. And I want to say thank you, America.

America and Israel are cooperating in many other ways as well. We're cooperating in science, in technology, in trade, in investment. It's not only American companies that are investing in Israel. It's Israeli companies investing in America. In the last decade, Israeli companies have invested more than $50 billion in the United States. One of those companies is investing just down the road in Richmond. It's a company that is building a food factory. Now, here's what it means - more business, more jobs, and, yes, more hummus.

Well, it's not just food we're bringing to America. Take medicine. Israel is advancing cure for multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's, cancer. We've developed mechanical means to make paraplegics walk again. We've placed a tiny diagnostic camera inside a pill. I have not swallowed it, but I understand it's quite effective. And you've just heard of this miraculous bandage developed by an Israeli company that has helped save Congresswoman Gabby Giffords' life. And I wish Gabby, a great friend of Israel, “Refuah Shlema”, a happy, quick, speedy recovery.

Israel and America are also cooperating to end the world's worst addiction, the addiction to oil. This dependence fuels terrorism. It poisons the planet. So we've launched a 10-year program in Israel to kick the habit, to find a substitute for gasoline. And if we succeed, we can change the world. We can change history.

My friends, the American people's support for Israel is reflected in my invitation to address a joint meeting of Congress tomorrow. I will talk about the great convulsion taking place in the Middle East, the risks and the opportunities. And I will talk about the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran. And I will also outline a vision for a secure Israeli-Palestinian peace. I intend to speak the unvarnished truth because now, more than ever, what we need is clarity. 

Events in the region are opening people's eyes to a simple truth: The problems of the region are not rooted in Israel. The remarkable scenes we're witnessing in town squares across the Middle East and North Africa are occurring for a simple reason: People want freedom. They want progress. They want a better life.

For many of the peoples of the region, the 20th century skipped them by. And now 21st century technology is telling them what they missed out on. You remember that desperate food vendor in Tunis? Why did he set himself on fire? Not because of Israel. He set himself on fire because of decades of indignity, decades of intolerable corruption.

And the millions who poured into the streets of Tehran, Tunis, Cairo, Sanaa, Benghazi, Damascus, they're not thinking about Israel. They're thinking of freedom. They're yearning for opportunity. They're yearning for hope for themselves and for their children. So it's time to stop blaming Israel for all the region's problems.

Let me stress one thing. Peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a vital interest for us. It would be the realization of a powerful and eternal dream. But it is not a panacea for the endemic problems of the Middle East. It will not give women in some Arab countries the right to drive a car. It will not prevent churches from being bombed. It will not keep journalists out of jail.

What will change this? One word: Democracy - real, genuine democracy. And by democracy, I don't just mean elections. I mean freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, the rights for women, for gays, for minorities, for everyone. What the people of Israel want is for the people of the Middle East to have what you have in America, what we have in Israel - democracy. So it's time to recognize this basic truth. Israel is not what's wrong with the Middle East. Israel is what's right about the Middle East.

My friends, we want peace because we know the pain of terror and we know the agony of war. We want peace because we know the blessings peace could bring - what it could bring to us and to our Palestinian neighbors. But if we hope to advance peace with the Palestinians, then it's time that we admitted another truth. This conflict has raged for nearly a century because the Palestinians refuse to end it. They refuse to accept the Jewish state.

Now, this is what this conflict has always been about. There are many issues linked to this conflict that must be resolved between Israelis and Palestinians. We can, we must, resolve them. But I repeat: We can only make peace with the Palestinians if they're prepared to make peace with the Jewish state.

Tomorrow in Congress, I'll describe what a peace between a Palestinian state and the Jewish state could look like. But I want to assure you of one thing. It must leave Israel with security. And therefore, Israel cannot return to the indefensible 1967 lines.

I'll talk about these and other aspects of peace tomorrow in Congress. But tonight I want to express Israel's gratitude for all you are doing to help strengthen Israel and the great alliance that Israel has with America. You helped maintain our qualitative military edge. You backed sanctions against Iran. You supported genuine peace. You opposed Hamas. And you've joined President Obama and me in denouncing Hamas and demanding that it release our captive soldier, Gilad Shalit. That's another outrageous crime of Hamas. Just imagine keeping a young soldier locked in a dark dungeon for five years without even a single visit - not a single visit of the Red Cross. I think that the entire civilized community should join Israel and the United States and all of us in a simple demand from Hamas: Release Gilad Shalit.

My friends, I spent my high-school years in Philadelphia. I understand it's developed quite a bit since then. But during those years, when it was a sleepier town, I used to go visit the Liberty Bell. Now, as Prime Minister of Israel, I can walk down the street and see an exact replica of that bell in Jerusalem's Liberty Park. On both bells is the same inscription. It comes from the Bible, from the book of Leviticus , “U’kratem Dror BaAretz L’chol Yoshveha”, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land.” My dear friends, this is the essence of the great alliance between our two nations - two peoples bonded in liberty and seeking freedom and peace for all. That's what this alliance is all about. And you are part of it. You maintain it.

I thank you on behalf of the people of Israel and the government of Israel. Thank you for the American-Israel alliance. Thank you, AIPAC.

Netanyahu reiterated the foundations of the US-Israel alliance.  He emphasized that more than anything else it is based on shared values.  Not only are Israel and the US united in fighting terrorism but this alliance benefits the United States in terms of  military and technological know how.  Most importantly Netanyahu emphasized that Israel is not the cause of the recent unrest in the Arab world.  It is instead based on the denial of democratic rights.  On this point especially Netanyahu is correct.  There is a tendency to pressure Israel to make changes because Israel listens and is sensitive to rebuke.  The central issue remains that far too many in the Arab Middle East live in oppressive regimes.  Israel and the US should be joined in helping to nurture democracy!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Bechukotai Sermon

Before we conclude this evening’s service let me share a few words of Torah.   In Leviticus 26, our Torah portion proclaims: “I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone; I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land.  You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword…”

This promise is predicated on our observance of the commandments.  It precedes a detailed list of punishments.  I am not going to enumerate the details of these punishments but suffice it to say that if you do not obey the commandments a lot of bad things will happen.  The punishments are quite lengthy and detailed.

I wish instead to speak for a moment about the promise of peace.  “Vnatati shalom ba-aretz…  I will grant peace in the land.”  The Torah suggests that peace, and in particular peace for the land of Israel, is in our hands.

This of course is the question of the day, and especially of this week.  President Obama just made a major speech about the Middle East and the peace process.  He suggested that the contours of a future Palestinians State would follow the 1967 borders.  Where it didn’t there would be land swaps in exchange.  He left unanswered the questions of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem.

There is no doubt that in the pursuit of peace Israelis will have to make major, painful concessions.  There should also be little doubt that Israel (and the Palestinians) can’t make peace unilaterally.  Peace, however, much we might wish it to be so, is not entirely dependent on us.

Our observance can only grant us respite of the soul.  Peace of the land is not only in our own hands.  We can withdraw from much of the West Bank and even uproot settlements.  But this alone will not bring peace.  The Palestinians must affirm the legitimacy of a Jewish state in the Arab Middle East.  They must affirm that this state is rooted in ancient history.  Without that all of the painful sacrifices and security guarantees will not, cannot bring peace.

And so we might feel understandably nervous and anxious.  I find myself quite pessimistic about the possibilities of peace.  For such an upbeat person this is as well an unnerving situation.

And so at such times we must continue praying for peace.  Our tradition commands us that we must never lose hope.  As the Psalmist says, “Shaalu shalom yerushalayim.”   (Psalm 122)   May it indeed be so!  We cannot afford to lose hope!  Never!

V’natati shalom ba-aretz.  May the land be granted peace!

President Obama's Speech Take 2

Yesterday President Obama spoke at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC.  He offered several clarifications of his Thursday speech.  The transcript and video of the speech can be found here.  The president said in part: "[T]he United sees the historic changes sweeping the Middle East and North Africa as a moment of great challenge, but also a moment of opportunity for greater peace and security for the entire region, including the State of Israel."

I remain unconvinced that the time is ripe to move the peace process forward.  I find the changes sweeping the region unsettling, but the president, like every president before him, can try to move peace forward.  Despite the fact that I am more often than not an optimist  I find myself deeply pessimistic that today a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians can be reached.

People have asked "Why did the president give this speech now?"  Here is my read on that question.  People who become presidents actually believe that they can actually change the world.  (Rabbis believe this too, although for some it might be confined to their small little worlds.)  Interestingly the greatest figures in history were those who had leadership thrust upon them and yet still managed to change the world for the better.  (I am thinking in particular of Truman here who supported the nascent State of Israel.)  Some really do change the world for the better.  Others of course trip on their grand visions and instead make matters worse.  But I don't doubt that Obama's intentions are true.  We appear to live in an age when people think that if they disagree with someone they must cast aspersions on his intentions as well.  Holding someone's opinions to be false does not necessarily mean that their intentions are false as well.  President Obama believes in his message of hope.  He also thinks that he can move the world in such a positive direction.  I pray he is right.  I fear he is wrong.  I trust that his intentions are true.

Yossi Klein Halevi writes in The New Republic.
As an ambivalent Israeli, I know that a Palestinian state is an existential necessity for me—saving Israel from the untenable choice between being a Jewish and a democratic state, from the moral erosion of occupation, from the growing movement to again turn the Jews, via the Jewish state, into the symbol of evil.

But I also know that a Palestinian state is an existential threat to me—forcing Israel back into eight-mile-wide borders between Palestine and the Mediterranean Sea, with the center of the country vulnerable to rocket attacks from the West Bank hills that overlook it. And, if Tel Aviv were to become the next Sderot—the Israeli town on the Gaza border that has endured thousands of missile attacks following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005—the international community might well try to prevent us from defending ourselves against terrorists embedded in a civilian population, with all the consequences of asymmetrical warfare. Moreover, a generation of Palestinians has been raised to see Israelis as Nazis, thieves, inventors of a history not rooted in this land. Alone among national movements, only the Palestinian cause conditions its dream of statehood on the disappearance of another state. (And that is the dream that not only of Hamas but Fatah, too, actively incites in internal Palestinian discourse.) Alone among occupiers, only Israel fears that territorial withdrawal won’t merely diminish but destroy it.

And so, there were two sides of me listening to the president. The dovish side embraced his vision of an interim agreement that would leave the issues of Jerusalem and refugee return to a later stage and instead focus on ending the occupation and providing security guarantees. But the hawkish side of me wondered whether this president has learned anything about the Middle East....
So: Yes to the vision. But no, we can’t implement it anytime soon. In other words: Yes, we can’t.
President Obama went on to reiterate the US commitment to Israel's security and to maintaining Israel's "qualitative military edge."  He said,  "...[T]he bonds between the United State and Israel are unbreakable, and the commitment of the United States to the security of Israel is ironclad."  He recognized that Hamas seeks Israel's destruction and that he would fight efforts to de-legitimize the State of Israel.

I also agree with his own assessment that there was nothing original in his Thursday speech regarding his reference to the 1967 borders.  He said publicly what has been nearly agreed to in private.  I quote:
If there's a controversy, then, it's not based in substance.  What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately.  I have done so because we cannot afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades, to achieve peace.  The world is moving too fast.  The extraordinary challenges facing Israel would only grow.  Delay will undermine Israel's security and the peace that the Israeli people deserve.
In my judgment, Prime Minister Netanyahu played last week's diplomatic challenges wrong.  He should have publicly thanked the president for his assurances about US commitments to Israel and perhaps quibbled with him in private.  Netanyahu missed an opportunity to take the high road.  The last thing Israel needs now is to appear like the stumbling block to peace.  But Netanyahu might have been more concerned about his supporters in Israel than the world at large.  I of course don't doubt Netanyahu's intentions either.  I think he is deeply sensitive to the tragedies of Jewish history.  But he appears to see them everywhere, most especially in any future changes.  Netanyahu acts as if the status quo is sustainable.  He is wrong on this point.  The Jewish present should not always be written with the imprint of the Holocaust and Inquisition. Remembrance should not be turned into intransigence. 

Also, I have little faith in the Palestinians and suspect that if Netanyahu had instead shouted words of thanks and praise towards Obama Palestinian recalcitrance would have again shown their true colors.  For decades the Palestinians have built their nationalist movement on the destruction of Israel and Zionism.  They have walked away from what President Obama now proposes two times.  Their continued commemoration of the 1948 creation of the State of Israel as Al Nakba, the catastrophe, suggests that they are still more interested in destroying Israel than creating Palestine.   This is why the recent Hamas-Fatah accord is so catastrophic and in particular the apparent sidelining of Salam Fayyad.  He was actually busy with state building and focused on really building something.

In the end it should feel decidedly uncomfortable to have our president quote the Jewish tradition to us, reminding us of the power of hope.  "The Talmud teaches us that so long as a person still has life, they should never abandon faith.  And that lesson seems especially fitting today."  We are the people who have held on to hope through the darkest of centuries.  We can't let go now.

Friday, May 20, 2011

President Obama's Speech

Yesterday President Obama delivered a speech about the Middle East. There has been a great deal of discussion in the press about his comments regarding Israel and there most certainly will be more debate at the upcoming AIPAC conference where both Netanyahu and Obama are speaking.   I would urge people to read yesterday's speech in its entirety.  You can find the text here as transcribed on The New York Times website.  If you prefer, watch Obama's speech below on YouTube:

Promise me this.  Please don't make judgments based on other people's comments.  Read the speech yourself.  Don't follow the lead of pundits, commentators, talk show hosts, and especially TV personalities.  Make your own informed judgments!

Here are mine.  We can by and large be pleased with Obama's statements.  He re-affirmed the important relationship between the US and Israel and criticized the ongoing terror campaign against the Jewish state.  Below is the relevant text.  I have highlighted those crucial statements in bold and of course added my comments in italics.

...For decades, the conflict between Israelis and Arabs has cast a shadow over the region. For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could be blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them. For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own. Moreover, this conflict has come with a larger cost to the Middle East, as it impedes partnerships that could bring greater security and prosperity and empowerment to ordinary people.

For over two years, my administration has worked with the parties and the international community to end this conflict, building on decades of work by previous administrations. Yet expectations have gone unmet. Israeli settlement activity continues. Palestinians have walked away from talks. The world looks at a conflict that has grinded on and on and on, and sees nothing but stalemate. Indeed, there are those who argue that with all the change and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward now.

I disagree. At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever. That's certainly true for the two parties involved.

For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won't create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist. 
Thank you Mr. President.  Palestinians must affirm Israel as a Jewish state rooted in history! 

As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values. Our commitment to Israel's security is unshakeable. And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums. But precisely because of our friendship, it's important that we tell the truth: The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace. 
Indeed the status quo is unsustainable.  I fear that Benjamin Netanyahu is more interested in maintaining the status quo because it keeps him in power.  In order to make bold decisions he must reach across the political divide and bring in different coalition partners.  Eventually the status quo will erode the democratic character of the State of Israel.  The dream of Israel is to be both Jewish and democratic.

The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River. Technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself. A region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people -- not just one or two leaders -- must believe peace is possible. The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation. 
There are those who care little of the democratic vision of the modern State of Israel.  The land is more holy than democratic values, they believe. They act as if other people can be sacrificed for the sake of touching the land that our ancestors walked.  We must not become intoxicated with the land as holy as it is.  Netanyahu and Israel's leadership must marginalize those who do not believe in both the Jewish and democratic visions of the State of Israel.

Now, ultimately, it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians to take action. No peace can be imposed upon them -- not by the United States; not by anybody else. But endless delay won't make the problem go away. What America and the international community can do is to state frankly what everyone knows -- a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace. 
Agreed!   Let us hope and pray!

So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear: a viable Palestine, a secure Israel. The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.
Much has been made of this statement, but in truth it is a restatement of what was proposed by Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak years ago.  Yasir Arafat walked out of those talks, leading to the second intifada.  According to WikiLeaks Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas were close to reaching such a deal only years ago.  The fact of the matter is that the security fence is a de-facto border.  The only question is how much of the West Bank will Israel be able to retain and how much pre-1967 land will the Palestinians accept in return.  What has changed is that Obama is publicly declaring this proposal and making it official US policy.  A legitimate criticism is that such a proposal should not be a starting point for negotiations but an end point.  My worry is that the Palestinians will again walk away from this proposal and begin another round of violence and terror against Israelis.  If the hopes and dreams that Obama outlined prove to be false violence will most certainly follow.

As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself -- by itself -- against any threat. Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security. The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state. And the duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.

These principles provide a foundation for negotiations. Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met. I'm aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain: the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians.
These issues are the most intractable.  Palestinians seem unwilling to make any concessions regarding the question of refugees.  There is no way that Israel can or should absorb Palestinians who are descended from refugees who fled (or let's be honest in some cases were forced to flee) in 1948.  That would destroy the Jewish character of the state by demographic means.  Similarly can Israel make any compromises on Jerusalem when for years Jews were denied access to their holiest of sites?  Why must sovereignty over Jerusalem be shared, or divided? 

Now, let me say this: Recognizing that negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and security does not mean that it will be easy to come back to the table. In particular, the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel: How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist? And in the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question. Meanwhile, the United States, our Quartet partners, and the Arab states will need to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse.
The most unfortunate of developments is the recent unity accord between Hamas and Fatah.  In the West Bank Salaam Fayyad was making so much progress in building the institutions of statehood and a thriving economy.  If he is pushed out it will be to the detriment of far more than the Palestinians.  Hamas is not only unwilling to recognize Israel, it is also pledged to Israel's destruction.  Let's get this one right Mr. President.  How can Israel negotiate with a partner who wants to destroy it? 

I recognize how hard this will be. Suspicion and hostility has been passed on for generations, and at times it has hardened. But I'm convinced that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians would rather look to the future than be trapped in the past. We see that spirit in the Israeli father whose son was killed by Hamas, who helped start an organization that brought together Israelis and Palestinians who had lost loved ones. That father said, "I gradually realized that the only hope for progress was to recognize the face of the conflict." We see it in the actions of a Palestinian who lost three daughters to Israeli shells in Gaza. "I have the right to feel angry," he said. "So many people were expecting me to hate. My answer to them is I shall not hate. Let us hope," he said, "for tomorrow."

That is the choice that must be made -- not simply in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but across the entire region -- a choice between hate and hope; between the shackles of the past and the promise of the future. It's a choice that must be made by leaders and by the people, and it's a choice that will define the future of a region that served as the cradle of civilization and a crucible of strife....
I desperately want to believe that peace is possible.  The status quo will lead to more violence.  Unrealized hopes for change will also lead to more violence.  But we must try to change ourselves and our world.  The Palestinians deserve a state.  Israel deserves sheket  v'shalom, quiet and peace.  Let us hope that these dreams are possible, both our hopes for Israel and the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people. 

Cycling Video

For those who love to ride, this is a great video. See you on the road!

Thursday, May 19, 2011


I am not optimistic about peace in the Middle East.

The Palestinian Authority’s Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, will soon unilaterally declare a Palestinian State defined by Israel’s pre-1967 borders. Despite his distortions of history, many nations will undoubtedly recognize this declaration. Some will not. The Palestinians continue to appeal to the United Nations for support. Meanwhile Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, appeals to the US Congress for support. They do not speak to each other, instead only to their supporters. Israel of course can always count on my support, but peace will not be achieved if Israel and the Palestinians refuse to speak with each other. (Tom Friedman is correct on this point.)

This week’s protests commemorating Al Nakhba offer further discouraging signs. Make no mistake. Marking the creation of the State of Israel as “the catastrophe” does not signal Palestinians coming to terms with the modern Jewish state. It suggests that the “stalemate” is not in truth about the 1967 borders but those of 1948. It should be remembered that the Jewish leadership accepted the 1947 UN partition plan and the Arab leaders rejected it. The catastrophe could have been averted then and there. The Palestinian Authority’s recent accord with Hamas is also deeply worrisome. Hamas is committed to Israel’s destruction. How can Israel make peace with such partners? How can there be peace with someone who is pledged to your destruction?

Looking from the side on which I sit, Netanyahu is either unable or unwilling to marginalize those Israelis who believe that the land of Israel is only meant for the Jewish people and no other people. Israel must divorce itself from these internal radical forces. It must do so not only for the sake of peace but because these modern day religious zealots threaten the democratic Jewish state. Make no mistake again. Discussions about this settlement or that are a diversion. It is instead the ideology of many settlers that is corroding Israel’s soul. Israel must uproot this ideology from its midst. It must do so first and foremost for its own sake.

Years ago when studying in Jerusalem during my first year in rabbinical school, I volunteered to tutor Arab high school students in English. Once a week I traveled by myself to the nearby village of Beit Safafa. It is an interesting village. It is located near the current Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo. Prior to 1967 Beit Safafa was a divided village. One half sat within the newly created State of Israel. The other half in Jordan, in what is called East Jerusalem. After the Six Day War the village was united and all its residents became Israeli citizens.

There I met with my students at one of their homes. Often we sat in the backyard eating sweets, nuts and fruits and of course drinking tea infused with mint leaves. Every week they laughed when I first sipped my tea. They exclaimed, “No sugar in your tea?” At the end of the year they presented me with a gift, a pen with my name inscribed on its side. “Steve Moskovitz” it read. I did not tell them that my name was misspelled. I did not tell them that I received five of these very same pens on my bar mitzvah. This present remains among my most treasured gifts.

I think of those moments as I eye the pen sitting on my desk. I have long since lost touch with my students. I wonder what has become of them. By now I imagine that they are married and have children. I wonder about their feelings and especially of those of their children. They would have come of age during a different time, during in particular the intifadas, the first of which began the year after I finished my studies in Jerusalem. Would they wish to live in a Palestinian state? Have some become radicalized? Have others left to make their lives in the United States or Europe?

Two weeks ago, Nicole Krantz spoke to our congregation about her recent experience with Seeds of Peace. As I listened to her speak about the friendships she formed with Israelis and Palestinians, I thought again about my students. Nicole spoke passionately about the power of Seeds and how it could perhaps transform the Middle East by changing ordinary young people. She was realistic about achieving peace. She recognized its challenges and difficulties. Yet she held fast to hope. She continued to believe that a few “seeds” could change the equation. I hope and pray she proves right. I wonder if Nicole befriended one of my student’s children.

I resolved to find my students. I will continue to search for peace.

This week’s portion, Bechukotai, declares: “I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone; I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land.” (Leviticus 26:6) The Torah’s words will forever remain my prayer.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Take Back Zionism

This is a powerful video about the humanitarian impulse of  modern Zionism.  It is produced by a new organization, Take Back Zionism, an advocacy group formed by alumni of Birthright Israel.

I remember  years ago when Menahem Begin was Israel's prime minister.  In 1977 an Israeli cargo ship came across a boat of Vietnamese drifting in the ocean.  The Israeli captain offered the sixty some people food and water and then transported them to Israel.  Begin granted these Vietnamese "boat people" Israeli citizenship, comparing them to Jewish refugees, many of whom had struggled in vain to escape Nazi occupied Europe. Begin was himself a Holocaust survivor.  In the end approximately 300 Vietnamese were granted Israeli citizenship and found a home in the Jewish state.

Where human beings suffer a Jew must take action.  I am proud of how frequently Israel has taken up this cause and sought to relieve the suffering of fellow human beings.

Unemployment and Torah

Yesterday I had the privilege of delivering the D'var Torah at the local Connect to Care town hall meeting and networking opportunity.  This event was for those who have found themselves unemployed or underemployed because of the recent economic crisis.  I am proud that my synagogue was one of the event's co-sponsors. 

Thank you Jim Krantz.  Thank you to all of the organizers of this Connect to Care event: UJA-Federation, Sid Jacobson JCC, Jericho Jewish Center and my congregation and its leadership.

This week’s Torah portion is Behar, from the book of Leviticus.  It is a portion decidedly focused on eretz yisrael, the land of Israel.  In particular it outlines two laws.  It first details the sabbatical year, shmita, the seventh year in which the land must remain untilled.  We are commanded not to work the land during this year.  We can only eat what grows on its own. 

The spiritual intention of this law is clear.  Everything is deserving of menuchah, rest.  In addition it reiterates the age old Jewish principal.  Everything belongs to God.  Just as you can’t do whatever you want with your bodies so too you can’t do everything with your land.  Everything is borrowed.  Everything is on loan.  In a sense on the sabbatical year the landowner and the landless are on equal footing.  Both can only take what the untilled earth offers. 

The second group of commandments makes the point that all belongs to God even stronger.  It is the law of the jubilee year, the yovel.  In the 50th year three things are to occur: 1. the land is again to lie fallow (by the way that would mean that the earth would remain untilled for two years: on the preceding sabbatical year and then the jubilee year), 2. Hebrew slaves are to be set free and 3. all properties sold must revert to their original owners.  This combined with the commandment detailed in the book of Deuteronomy that not only is the land to lie fallow on the seventh year, but that all debts are forgiven on that sabbatical year, are indeed worthy of further examination at this moment when we gather as a Connect to Care community.

To be honest it is doubtful that these practices of the jubilee when all land reverted to its original tribal owners and the remission of all debts were ever practiced.  As they say in modern terms, that might bring the economy to a standstill.  Nonetheless the ideal offers us an extraordinary teaching.  The Torah here suggests that not only does the land belong to God but also our wealth.  Even our money is in a sense God’s.  All our worldly accumulations belong to God.  

What is the goal of these biblical laws?  So that we might better share with others.  So that we might not measure ourselves by the acres we own or the wealth we accumulate.  The Torah wants to draw a circle around the community.  It seeks not fence others out, but to fence all in. 

I think about this when I see our fenced in backyards. We work to keep our neighbors out. The Bible worked to bring our neighbors in. The Torah wants us to share with others. It wants us to include others. The Bible wants to instill in our hearts the idea that nothing is mine and everything is God’s.

As I read the Torah portion’s words I think to myself what it might be like to sit where many sit.  Far too many are unemployed and far too many are underemployed.  What an extraordinary opportunity it would be to have the jubilee this year, to have this ancient do-over when all debts would be wiped clean and each us would have the opportunity to start over.  Too many feel that they are not even returning to the starting line, but instead beginning yards back because they are suffering under crushing debt.  I wish I could proclaim the jubilee for all.  I wish I could blow the shofar and announce that jubilee and say we are all starting over.  Everything and everyone is back to the beginning.  It is good to dream—especially when it is the Bible’s dream.

I of course have no such power.  Not only am I poor shofar blower, but such power belongs to no one today.  Long ago we lost count.  And the 50th year was never again proclaimed.  But each of us has the power to transform our own souls.  Each of us has the power to proclaim such a thing to ourselves.  Each of can say to ourselves that my wealth is God’s. 

If the Torah is right, and I believe it to be so, that land is not truly mine, but God’s then I can never lose.  I am only a tenant.  Each of us is only a tenant.  Holding such a belief in our souls might prevent us from becoming broken.

As a rabbi that is my most fervent hope and prayer. Despite all difficulties and struggles may our souls forever remain whole.  Kein y'hi ratzon.

Thursday, May 12, 2011


“It’s the ground that can never be replaced…  They don’t make any more ground, and this ground in the spillway is the best in the world.”

Last week the Army Corps of Engineers dynamited a hole in the Mississippi river levee, flooding the spillway, in order to save a small town.  In the process they sacrificed precious Missouri farm land.  The New York Times (May 3, 2011) quoted one farmer’s words of praise and reverence for the land he and his family farmed for their entire lives.

Years ago when my family and I used to boat on the mighty Mississippi we would marvel at the homes on the river’s banks.  Why would people build on a flood plain?  Every year the Mississippi river floods.  Every year the river nourishes the surrounding farm lands.  Some years the floods are greater than others.  Precious land comes at great cost.  Apparently this is nature’s equation.  And so every year families have to flee their homes.  There is pull of the land that defies reason.  There is the pull of an ancestral home that surpasses explanation. It is the sanctity of the land that pulls families toward it.

This week’s Torah portion, Behar, is about the sanctity of the land of Israel.  So revered is this land that it alone is granted a sabbatical year.  “When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord.”  What is the purpose of this sabbatical year, a year in which the land must be allowed to lie fallow?  Its purpose is twofold.  On the one hand it is a reminder that only God truly owns the land.  There is in truth no property ownership.  The land is lent to us by God.  On the other hand the sabbatical year teaches us that everything, that all of God’s creations, must rest.  Menuchah, Shabbat rest, is a universal right.  It is not just a Jewish obligation, but instead a right that every living thing must enjoy. The land as well is a living and breathing creation.

Thus the sabbatical year of the land should rekindle in us a reverence for the land.  To be sure the Torah’s focus is the land of Israel and its inherent holiness.  Nonetheless we learn from this portion that land is sacred.  And we must therefore regain a reverence for the land and nature.  There is a majesty of the earth that is lost to many of our contemporaries.  We appear only to revere nature’s awesome power.  These recent storms remind us however not only of nature’s fury but also of its grandeur. The sabbatical year and the river’s flooding remind us about nature’s cycle that we try in vain to defy.  

We must say as well, along with farmers, “The ground beneath our very feet is the best in the world.”

The Zionist philosopher A.D Gordon once wrote: “At times you imagine that you, too, are taking root in the soil that you are digging; like all that is growing around, you are nurtured by the light of the sun’s rays with food from heaven.  You feel that you, too, live a life in common with the tiniest blade of grass, with each flower, each tree; that you live deeply in the heart of nature, rising up from all and growing straight up into the expanse of the world…” 

Gordon’s primary concern was the spiritual power to be found in working the land.  But his lesson is still apt for our generation.  Each of us must find a way to reclaim the earth as our own, to regain a sacred connection to the land.  It should not occur to us when the land is washed away.  We should recognize it and proclaim it each and every day.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Testing Limits

Testing the Limits - by Marjorie Ingall; Tablet Magazine
This is an interesting article about standardized testing. Given that our children are now in the thick of taking standardized test the author's thoughts should give us pause. Is there a correlation between improved teaching and standardized tests as politicians argue? I think not. I have always found these troubles. How can one objectify learning. Does a 5 mean you have learned more? Does an 800 mean you are a better writer? Such scores are pyrrhic victories. The notion that all students, especially young fourth graders, can be placed on the same level and evaluated by objective measures is impossible.

Ingall writes as well about what should be our communal concern:
As Jews, we dig community. Al tifrosh min hatzibur, we’re told: Do not separate yourself from the community. Our prayers are written overwhelmingly in the first person plural. But standardized testing is the furthest thing from communitarian. Wealthy families buy tutoring. Upper-middle-class kids come into school with the huge advantage of being read to more often at home. Testing enforces existing divisions and even increases them. And being Jewish means you shouldn’t just worry about your kids; you should be concerned about everyone’s kids. That means working to improve all schools—yes, even if your kid goes to Jewish Day School—in meaningful ways, because that’s part of the responsibility of living in a democracy.
The increasing attempt to reduce to numbers what is a subjective endeavor is a doomed enterprise. Teaching can never be quantified. It is an art. It can only be measured in the transformation of a student's soul.

Happy Yom Haatzmaut!

Today is Yom Haatzmaut, Israel Independence Day.  63 years ago, according to the Jewish calendar, David Ben Gurion proclaimed the creation of the modern Jewish state with the words:
[W]e, the members of the National Council, representing the Jewish people in Palestine and the Zionist movement of the world, met together in solemn assembly today, the day of the termination of the British Mandate for Palestine, and by virtue of the natural and historic right of the Jewish people and of the resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations, hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish State in Palestine, to be called Israel.
We live in remarkable times.  Few generations of Jews have shared in the privilege of living alongside a sovereign Jewish state.  When we look back through the lens of history we realize that this blessing is unprecedented.  It is unrivaled. 

Most people think that our community is affluent because of its material success.  The Jewish community has indeed achieved unprecedented levels of wealth, education, and stature, especially here in the United States.  Our riches however are better measured not by these successes, but instead by the achievement of our age-old dream.  The modern State of Israel represents the greatest riches we have ever realized. 

Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote in what has become a classic, Israel: An Echo of Eternity (1969):
The return to Zion is a creative challenge to stabilization, shaking up inertia, a challenge demanding new action, new thinking.
Well-adjusted people think that faith is an answer to all human problems.  In truth, however, faith is a challenge to all human answers.  Faith is a consuming fire, consuming all pretensions.  To have faith is to be in labor.
Well-meaning people used to say that a Jewish state would be an answer to all Jewish questions.  In truth, however, the State of Israel is a challenge to many of our answers.  To be involved in the life of Israel is to be in labor.
What is the meaning of the State of Israel?  Its sheer being is the message.  The life in the land of Israel today is a rehearsal, a test, a challenge to all of us.  Not living in the land, nonparticipation in the drama, is a source of embarrassment.
Each of us could participate in this drama far more.  Each of us must participate in this drama far more!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Yom HaZikaron

Today is Yom HaZikaron, the day we remember those soldiers who gave their lives defending the State of Israel.  They are far too many for such a small nation.  To mark this day I share Natan Alterman's "The Silver Platter."

The earth grows still
the lurid sky slowly pales
over smoking borders.
Heartsick, but still living, a people stand by
to greet the uniqueness
of a miracle.

Readied, they wait beneath the moon
wrapped in awesome joy, before the light.
A girl and boy step forward,
and slowly walk before the waiting nation;

In work garb and heavy-shod
they climb in stillness.
Wearing yet the dress of battle, the grime
of aching day arid fire-filled night.

Unwashd, weary unto death, not knowing rest,
but waring youth like dewdrops in their hair
silently the two approach
and stand,
are they of the quick or of the dead?

Through wandering tears, the people stare.
"Who are you, the silent two?"
And the reply, "We are the silver platter
upon which the Jewish State was served to you."

And in speaking, fall in shadow at the nation's feet.
Let the rest in Israel's chronicles be told.

May there soon come a day when no more will be offered on the silver platter!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Yom HaShoah Sermon

What follows is the sermon I delivered when we observed Yom HaShoah on April 29th.

Our sacred task in the face of the Holocaust is the pursuit of memory.

I have been thinking about the question of justice.  This year is the 50th anniversary of the Eichmann trial and I have been reading Deborah Lipstadt’s The Eichmann Trial.  I urge you to read this book and to watch some of the video clips posted on this blog.  Perhaps you might even want reread the controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt.    

Here is my question for this evening.  Is justice possible?  I believe justice is about rebalancing the scales.  It is about two things: 1. punishment and 2. restitution.  With regard to both of these categories it is impossible to rebalance the scales—in the face of the Holocaust.  Perhaps it is possible with regard to punishment for our tormentors.

This is why Israel’s punishment of Eichmann was so appropriate.  There is only one capital crime in the modern State of Israel.  It is the crime of genocide.  Eichmann was hanged and his body cremated.  The ashes were scattered in the Mediterranean Sea beyond Israel’s territorial waters.  In the Jewish imagination there is no worse punishment than to have your name blotted out.  And so his name appears on no gravestone!  

In terms of the second category of restitution it is impossible.  How can there be recompense for the suffering of six million victims?  So many millions can not even be represented?  How can such suffering be rebalanced?  How can there ever be adequate payment for such extraordinary suffering?

This does not mean we should give up our pursuit of the tormentors or their accomplices or the companies and leaders that enabled them.  But these pursuits are more about remembering and telling the story than the pursuit of justice.  This is because the pursuit of justice in the face of the enormity of the Holocaust is especially inadequate and imperfect.  So our pursuit must be more about the pursuit of memory.

I believe remembering can serve to inspire.  It must serve to inspire us to better our world.  We must therefore speak out against suffering—wherever and whenever it might occur.  One of the most powerful exhibits at the Glen Cove Holocaust Museum is the final pictures.  One picture is the most powerful of all.  It tells the story of a friendship between an elderly Holocaust survivor and a young woman who survived the Rwanda genocide.  A Jewish man from Europe and a black woman from Africa together speak out against genocide and hatred.

This is also the power of our Torah portion’s words.  “Lo taamod al dam re’echa.  Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”  There is a famous midrash about the first murder, that of Cain killing Abel.  The Torah states: “kol dmay achicha tzoakim elai.  The voice of your brother’s bloods screams out to Me.”  Why is blood in the plural, the rabbis ask.  It is because murder is not just about the murder of an individual but the destruction of all their potential descendants. 

I imagine this is what Israel’s attorney general had in mind when he opened the prosecution of Eichmann fifty years ago.  He said, “Damam tzoek.  Their blood cries out, but their voice is not heard.”

Each of us has a duty to save another human being in distress.  We cannot say as Cain did, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  This of course is what Eichmann also failed to understand.  His notion of morality was to follow orders whatever they might be.  Our belief by contrast is that each of us has a responsibility to other human beings.  We are responsible for others!  Wherever and whenever another cries out we must not be silent.  We must rise up to help them.

That is what the memory of the Holocaust must inspire us to do.  And that is what we must pursue each and every day of our lives.  We pursue memory so that we might better our world and alleviate suffering!

Bin Laden is Dead

This week's news was extraordinary, although surprising.  Nearly ten years after 9-11 the principal architect of these terrorist attacks was killed.  There should be no moral qualms about our efforts to hunt him down and finally kill him.  Punishment is served.  Deterrence, we hope and pray, is also achieved.  That his punishment is just does not mean as politicians and pundits now pronounce that justice is also served.  There can really be no justice in the face of the deaths of thousands.  I doubt very much if the families of those murdered feel any more sense of closure now that this architect of death and destruction is no more.  To my mind justice is also about re-balancing the scales.  How can this be achieved when so many have been murdered, so many still suffering and countless more terrorized?  For that matter, how can there ever be such an accounting when even one life is taken?

This as well does not mean that we rejoice over his death.  We belong to a tradition that teaches that we never celebrate death, even that of our self-proclaimed enemies.  The Talmud declares: If someone comes to kill you, get up earlier to kill him first.  Had we followed this dictum and killed bin Laden 12 years ago, or immediately following the bombing of the USS Cole, now that would have been cause for rejoicing.  We would not then be celebrating his death but the saving of so many lives.  Our cause would have been equally just at that time, but far more difficult to explain to the American public.  We would not even have known then what were celebrating.  Those were innocent, and naive, years.  I also celebrate the decision to send commandos to carry out this mission rather than bombing from the air.  I recognize that the decision may have had more to do with the desire to prove bin Laden's death than the preservation of civilian lives.  Nonetheless I rejoice that civilians were not killed during this justified raid.  Such things are what we celebrate.  I do not dance when another human being is killed.  Even a just punishment is never reason to celebrate.

Today nearly all recognize that bin Laden needed to be killed and his ideology needs to be eradicated.  All that is, except for the likes of Hamas.  Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister of Hamas ruled Gaza, said: "We condemn the assassination and the killing of an Arab holy warrior. We regard this as a continuation of the American policy based on oppression and the shedding of Muslim and Arab blood."  Reason appears to fail such leaders.  Even though bin Laden was responsible for murdering Muslims as well, it is wrong when a non-Muslim kills a Muslim.  Apparently it is only right when Muslims kill non-Muslims.  Such appears to be his view.  It is a contorted morality.  It is twisted reason.  And this is the leader with whom Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah have signed an accord.  Such actions indicate that the West Bank's leadership prefers Palestinian unity over all else--even the possibility peace with the State of Israel, even the establishment of a Palestinian State.  This accord makes such achievements far less likely. 

It is eerie as well that only a few days after writing about Eichmann's trial and punishment I am now discussing the death of another who professed a similar malignant ideology.  Like Eichmann bin Laden was buried at sea.  There is now no place to pilgrimage.  No country can claim his memory.  It is remarkable that the US made sure that Muslim rites were provided.  Even our enemies are guaranteed religious freedom.  That more than anything else illustrates the difference between us and "them."  We celebrate our differences.  We give honor to our differences.  Bin Laden wanted to eradicate differences.  He and those who subscribe to such ideologies of hate offer a stark choice. Believe and practice like me or be killed.

I am going to celebrate that even our enemy was granted the rituals important to him.  I am certain that he would not have done likewise.  I will rejoice that here in this great country differences are celebrated and not reviled.  I seek not to erase such differences.  I revel in them.  In my view the only infidels are those who scream at all but themselves, "Infidel!"