Monday, December 25, 2006

2006 High Holy Days Sermon

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Yom Ha-Atzmaut—Independence Day

Yom HaZikaron concludes with the traditional memorial prayer, as Yom HaAtzmaut begins with the lighting of twelve torches on Mt. Herzl, each representing one of the ancient tribes of Israel. Metuka Benjamin, renowned educator at Stephen S. Wise Temple, and my dear friend, lights one of those torches. This is the first time that someone not living in the State has been given this honor. Those of us who came here to celebrate with Metuka feel great pride in her and in her work on behalf of Israel. She is a great educator and a great Zionist.

The torches burn brightly against the darkness, as hundreds of children, all dressed in blue and white, dance before us with great exuberance. I’m normally quite emotional about children, but especially so about Israeli children because they represent the spirit of Jewish renewal. Seeing them dance Israeli folk dances to Hebrew songs of a hopeful future represents that renewal. Indeed, just hearing them speak Hebrew declares the rebirth of our people. More, even Hebrew itself declares that renewal. There is no other nation that has experienced homelessness for two thousand years, during which its language was reserved only for the study of text—never spoken—that has recreated its language. Celebrating 57 years of independence means more than physical liberation. It means the liberation of a culture, the opportunity to take a four thousand year history, and build anew on that foundation, reinterpreting it, creating a new vocabulary, a new literature, as well as art, and a civic society, and the political structure to live in a complex world—and in a bad neighborhood.

At the center of the celebration is a slab of black stone with four Hebrew letters engraved upon it in gold. They read HERZL. In 1898, this founder of modern Zionism wrote in his book, The Jewish State, that fifty years hence there would be an independent Jewish nation established on its ancient land. And, indeed, exactly 50 years later, in 1948, his prophecy was fulfilled and Israel was declared a State. Herzl did not live to see the birth of Israel; having died in Europe, his body was brought to Israel for reburial on this mountain that now bears his name. Everything that takes place on this night of our Jewish independence celebration—the torches, the dancing, the songs, the speeches, the singing of Hatikvah, indeed, the meaning of being a free people—takes place on this great mountain peak.

And still, all around us are the seemingly countless reminders of what it cost to build Israel and what it costs to defend her from her enemies. Herzl lies at the top of the mountain, but the vast slopes that surround his grave comprise Israel’s largest military cemetery. It is a powerful reality of Israel that the celebration of her independence is ever and always bound to remembrance.

Jewish Power

It’s hard to be in Israel and not think about Jewish power. Because for the first time in two thousand years, Jews actually have some. Any thoughts of physical strength were simply fantasies during two millennia of exile. Today there is a Jewish state with considerable military strength. Some Jews still aren’t entirely comfortable with that. They know well the image of the beleaguered, persecuted Jew, who—in his long-suffering nature—never does harm to anyone. Once you have the power that makes survival possible, you also confront the reality that, in defense of your nation, you may have to use it to kill.

So, while it’s true that we remain the people of the Book—thoughtful, prayerful, studious—the image of the Jew with eyes glued to that book, but fully dependant on the good will of whichever power rules, is not the Jew of the modern State of Israel. And I’m thankful for that. And so, on the morning of Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s day of remembrance of the soldiers who have died to defend their homeland, the ceremony on Har HaTayasim begins with the flyover of four F-16’s. They roar over the hilltop on which we sit—like last night, about a thousand mourners—in a “fallen-man” formation. Twenty-five year-old Amnon, whom we met at Tel Nof, commands the F-15 that suddenly veers off to the left, leaving the formation of his comrades to represent the fighters who never returned to their base. It’s all highly symbolic, but I’m relieved when I get to see Amnon again a few days later. Israel is incredibly strong, but with that strength comes a heavy price.

My friend, Etty, whose husband has been an Air Force pilot for close to thirty years, interprets for us the meaning of a strong Israel. “You guys,” she says to the pilots, “you guys save my children every day.”

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Yom HaZikaron

We are on the road from Caesarea to our family’s kibbutz. My son, Adam, has been relentless in his pushing me to write more blog entries. There’s been little time for that these past few days, which have been incredibly full.

After having sat in the cockpit of an F-15 at the Air Force base of Tel Nof—guided by pilot Amnon—we moved to the ceremony inaugurating Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s day of Remembrance for all the soldiers who have fallen in defense of the State, from the War of Independence until today. At 8:00pm, here as well as in every corner of the country, the sounds of sirens are heard for two minutes—and the nation stands in silence. The program, held outdoors under a beautiful spring sky, includes song and poetry, all reflections of the sadness that forever lodges in the hearts of those who have lost sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters. The audience is made up largely of these grieving air force family members, who find a small measure of solace in being together. Among them are two officers, who were children aged 4 and 6 when their father was killed in action. Now they serve with distinction. You see the faces, especially the eyes of parents, and you know that they live with the memories of what they once had and lost, and the imaginings of lives cut off from their future.

You also know that it was precisely for that future that they gave their lives—the future of the State, whose existence has never been entirely secure. Off to the left of the stage we see the flickering lights of hundreds of memorial candles, glowing in the darkness beside the waving flag of Israel. It is next to impossible to describe the feeling, the tone of this evening. Indeed, during the next 24 hours, the cemeteries of Israel will be the gathering places of countless families and friends visiting their war dead. This country may be the only place in the world where no one has been spared the pain of loss—where everyone realizes that the State of Israel (as a famous poem notes) was not offered up on a silver platter.

As the ceremony continues with speeches of remembrance, photographs of every individual who gave his life while serving in the Air Force are projected onto the screens before our eyes. And every individual name is read aloud. The same ritual is repeated in every town and village of Israel tonight. The power of remembrance, the more than 20,000 souls sacrificed—beyond words. But look into the faces of those who are here to remember and you see a small measure of their immeasurable pain.

As the crowd leaves the ceremony, we pass an F-15 and a Hercules—not displayed as a glorification of power, but more in recognition of what is necessary for the physical survival of a people… until the hope for peace is fulfilled.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Atidim: Israel Creates its Future

It was a glorious morning in Tel Aviv, just hours since my arrival from Los Angeles. Outside the window of the Dan Hotel, the sun sparkled off the blue waters of the Mediterranean. But what was going inside reflected an even greater beauty of Israel, an example of the State--on the eve of 57 years of independence--creating its future.

A group of us sat with Itzik Turgeman and three young people who come from the most underprivileged areas of Israeli society. They are part of an amazing program which began five years ago on a grassroots level and whose success will help transform not only its participants, but the communities they come from. One of them, Ezra Yevarken, age 26, left his village in Ethiopia at the age of five, making the trek to Sudan with his family, traveling the distance through the desert by foot, ultimately to be airlifted by Israel and brought to the land of their dreams. Ezra is one of seven children, whose parents would divorce in Israel and whose father completely cut himself off from the family. Seven children and their illiterate mother were left to fend for themselves, living in dire poverty in the northern town of Carmiel.

But what we saw before us this morning hardly seemed like the product of deprivation. Just the opposite. Before us sat a handsome young man, who could have spoken with a hard-earned pride, yet told us his story with a thoroughly honest humility. In beautiful English, Ezra spoke without even a hint of self-pity for the hardships his family has suffered, the kinds of hardships few of us can imagine. Instead, Ezra told us of how his mother repeatedly told him and his siblings, as they were growing up, of how she expected them to study, to work tirelessly to get good educations. Ezra's mother, who can't read or write, told her son to do something that seemed impossible. He worked at night as a security guard to earn money, knowing that he probably could never afford the expense of a university education. Indeed, how he might do anything other than what his family had done in Ethiopia--tending a flock of sheep--remained a distant vision. But, Ezra told us, he was set on doing exactly what his mother had asked of him.

He went to work, saved whatever little money he could, knowing that it might take him forever to complete his studies. And then, his future appeared in the form of Atidim. He was chosen to study electrical engineering at Bar Ilan University, with Atidim paying all of his tuition and living expenses. Atidim gave him a laptop, and as part of the program, he was adopted by Hewlett Packard. Ezra works as he learns, with a mentor available to him to assist in any areas of academic challenge. When he graduates, he'll work fulltime for the company.

Ezra's story isn't unique. Atidim can now tell hundreds of stories like Ezra's. What it takes is for someone to recognize potential that might otherwise have been wasted, someone to look beyond Ezra's history, to see deeper than his family's poverty, to acknowledge what he might become. In that, Ezra's story is the story of Israel, the story of changing lives, creating new stories for the future. Israel took Ezra and his family out of Africa (the first time in history that blacks were taken off that continent to freedom, rather than to slavery) and brought them to a land of promise, fraught as it is with the painful realities of war. And Atidim is helping Ezra realize not only the promise of his land, but his personal promise.

The future? Atidim has committed itself--in the course of the next fifteen years--to investing in 40,000 Ezras, finding them in the least likely places of deprivation, providing for their educations, helping them create their futures. Multiply those 40,000 by the siblings and others they'll inspire, and what you have is a society fulfilling the dreams and the purposes of its independence. Itzik Turgeman, together with the growing number of Atidim sponsors, has no doubt that the dream will be realized. After twelve hours in Israel, Ezra convinced us all that Israel remains a nation where, every day, a nation works to turn its dreams into reality.