Our Hope of 2000 Years is not lost
Updated: Oct 2
Kol Nidre, 5784 Rabbi Daniel Gropper Community Synagogue of Rye
On October 5th, 1973, exactly 50 years ago on the Jewish calendar, Jews around the world gathered to hear the sounds of Kol Nidre. The next morning, as we came to synagogue, congregations buzzed. People murmured to each other, “Did you hear? Israel was attacked!” On our holiest day, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on two fronts without warning. Israel suffered enormous initial losses. Her fate hung in the balance. Many here only learned this news when their rabbi announced it from the bima, others didn’t even go into their synagogue buildings; opting to sit in their cars and listen to the news on their radios. Rabbis threw their sermons away, added psalms, extemporized prayers and spoke about the seriousness of the moment. They pleaded for donations and the money came. $500 million in 30 days, equivalent to $3.5 billion today.
Less than a generation after the Holocaust, the thought of Israel being wiped off the map was too much to bear. Thankfully, 19 days later, that existential threat came to an end in what would forever be known as the Yom Kippur War. Sadly, 2,656 Israeli soldiers lost their lives and 7,250 were wounded. If you want to experience it, go see Golda in theaters or watch The Valley of Tears on HBO.
I realize many of us weren’t here 50 years ago, so I’d like to ask those of you who were to become our teachers for a moment. Is there anyone who would like to share a memory from that time? (ask for volunteers. We heard from Miriam Rothman, David Hessekiel, Joan & Ron Cohen. View this, beginning at 3:20)
For 50 years, Israel has lived with this external threat. Right now, it is as menacing as ever: Iran is pouring weapons into the West Bank and is proceeding with its nuclear program. Hamas and the other organizations in Gaza appear to be preparing for a multi-front war. Hezbollah appears to be trying to goad Israel into a conflict. Gang crime in Israeli Arab villages is rising, and more Jews have died from Arab terrorism this year than in any other since the Second Intifada.
The internal challenges are not much better. The Haredim procreate at such a rate that in 20 years, as much as 25% of the Israeli population will be on welfare and refusing to serve in the IDF. Currently, 20% of the population pays 80% of the taxes, with Israel’s tax rate on workers being the highest in the western world. And most pressing, and what I want to speak about tonight, is the judicial overhaul and various bills that threaten Israel’s core identity as a democratic nation.
Earlier this summer, the Netanyahu government passed the “reasonableness” bill, nullifying a long standing doctrine that allows Israel’s Supreme Court justices to use their own standards to override the legislative body when considering laws or government appointees.
The reasonableness standard in Israeli law finds its roots in various legal traditions and influences. Israel's legal system draws inspiration from Jewish law (Halakha), British common law, and legal principles adopted by other Western legal systems. Britain, for example, continues to be a democratic state without a written constitution, and its judiciary uses reasonableness and other standards to review and even quash legislation that offends this test.
Jewish law has a long history of emphasizing reasonableness and fairness in legal decision-making. The principle of "derech eretz" (literally, "the way of the land") in Jewish law encompasses ethical conduct and reasonable behavior. It guides individuals to act in a manner that is just, equitable, and considerate of others
Why would a government pass a law that removes the ability of the courts to question the law on the basis of “reasonableness?” It can only be because they plan to pass laws that would be considered to be unreasonable. In fact, there are currently 225 bills before the Knesset that one might consider as such. One such bill would blunt the Attorney General’s authority to bring prosecutions. Another permits further “illegal” settlements on the West Bank; yet another enshrines halachic laws, requiring Shabbat observance by businesses, and further curtailment of the rights of women and LGBTQ+ Jews to freely observe Jewish rites that are traditionally reserved for cis-genered heterosexual men.
Hitting closer to home, one bill would revoke the 1970 amendment that allows non-Jewish grandchildren of Jews to apply for Israeli citizenship. If that bill is passed, some of your grandchildren, whom Hitler would have targeted as Jews because they have one Jewish grandparent, may no longer have the privilege of being admitted to Israel under the law of return.
The governing coalition call these actions “reforms,” They are not. They are overhauls. Overhauls of certain basic laws that, for the last 75 years, Israelis have accepted as the norm, chief among them, a judicial check on the legislature, the core principle of any liberal democracy. As much as some say this is happening because Netanyahu wants to avoid jail time for the corruption charges against him, it is happening because there is real pain on the side of those who champion these overhauls: Jews from North Africa and Middle Eastern countries who have been treated like second class citizens ever since they made aliyah; younger voters who came of age during the first and second intifada who see the notion of peace with the Palestinians as hopeless; uprooted settlers who never saw the payoff promised to them for leaving their homes. Showing up with their pain at the voting booth, this government mobilized a coalition of the aggrieved. But we must also see this government’s actions for what they are, a power grab by the most hard-right government in Israeli history. If Israel’s judges no longer get to decide which administrative decisions are “reasonable,” if it means that the Supreme Court in Israel no longer serves as a check on the legislature, it means that the politicians in power hold all the power. And today, those politicians include homophobes, convicted criminals, aspiring theocrats, and proud nationalist chauvinists. And as the demonstrations of the last eight months have shown, these overhauls threaten to tear Israel apart.
In many ways it feels like we are not living in the 21st century but in first century Jerusalem. Then three distinct groups battled for control: The Sadducees who wanted to keep sacrificing to God in the Holy Temple and to retain the ritual and administrative power granted to them by the Romans. The Pharisees, progenitors of the Judaism we observe today, who sought compromise and the Sicarii, Jewish zealots who, in their strong opposition to foreign domination, attempted to expel Rome by attacking its soldiers using cloak and dagger tactics.
The tensions in Jerusalem ran very hot. The Pharisees were attuned to how Rome would respond if some sort of peace was not brokered. The Sicarii, on the other hand, somehow felt that they could defeat the world’s largest superpower. And so, while they went about stabbing Roman soldiers, the Pharisees conceived of ways to survive, even to the point of faking their leader’s death and ferrying him out of the city in a coffin.
We know how the story ends. On the 9th of Av, the Romans destroyed the Temple, plundering its riches and razing the city. Josephus writes that over a million Jews were killed and close to 100,000 carried off as slaves. While the numbers are likely exaggerated, the total destruction was not. It led to the loss of Jewish political authority in Israel for almost 2000 years.
When the rabbis sat down to write the Talmud, some asked, “why was the Temple destroyed?” Their answer was not one of history but of morality and memory.
מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהָיְתָה בּוֹ שִׂנְאַת חִנָּם.
It was destroyed because of sinat hinam, senseless hatred. The Temple was destroyed because those Jews, our Jews, our ancestors living in first century Jerusalem could not get along.
Today, this ruling coalition, who, in the worlds of my teacher Yossi Klein Halevi is made up of “political zealots, religious fundamentalists - and the ‘merely corrupt,’” are like the Sicarri of old, willing to hold the rest of Israel hostage, willing to burn it all down for their radical agenda.
Thankfully, Israelis from all walks of life - from secular to orthodox, from left leaning to right leaning are saying, “yesh g’vul,” there is a limit and are raising their voices. Since January of this year, seven million Israelis have gathered at 4,400 locations to protest. Last February, when I was in Israel, I participated in one of them. What I noticed amazed me. People were friendly, considerate, polite (not the first adjectives that come to mind when you think of Israelis). They expressed frustration but I saw no seething anger amidst the protesters like there was, say, on January 6th, 2021. This was not a protest against Israel. It was a rally for Israel. No one carried an alternative flag, or burned one or tore one up. We carried the blue and white proudly. We sang Hatikvah. Od Lo Avdah Tikvatenu - Our hope of 2000 years is not lost. Hope, that Jewish drug, permeated the scene.
Still, even with this hope and optimism, there are serious concerns. Beyond the fear that the passage of these laws is wil turn Israel into a theocracy like Iran, an apartheid state that was once South Africa or an autocracy like modern day Hungary, if these bills are passed, what will happen to the effort currently underway to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia? What will happen to the future of normalization with other Arab countries or the future of a Palestinian State?
And then there are the concerns for the Israeli economy, which surprisingly, few are speaking about. Almost 70% of local Israeli startup companies have taken legal or financial steps toward relocation, including withdrawing cash reserves, moving headquarters outside Israel and transferring their intellectual property to entities formed in more politically stable environments. As many as 1 in 4 Israelis are looking to emigrate. These are the ones who helped make Israel the Start Up Nation. The shekel is trading at levels not seen since the last intifada and it is estimated that the Israeli economy has lost some $81 billion, or 15% of the country’s GDP. We know from our history that when extremists take over, it only brings calamity upon our people. As Churchill once said, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”
Keeping Israel Jewish and democratic are the most urgent Jewish tasks of this moment. This struggle is as much of an existential threat as Iranian nukes. This is THE moment, for all supporters of Israel, to raise their voices. As the Talmud teaches, “Those who have the ability to protest the conduct of members of their own house and do not do so are held accountable for the behavior of those members of their house.” (Shabbat 54a).
What then might we do? Start with this. Stay informed. Don’t just rely on the New York Times or Wall Street Journal for your Israel news. Read the Times of Israel or Danny Gordis’ Israel From the Inside. Listen to The Daily Briefing from The Times of Israel or Identity/Crisis from the Hartman Institute and click on the links of the articles that will be sent out following Yom Kippur. There are amazing Israeli journalists writing from their perspective. And read “dukes down” as a college professor once told me. Read with a less critical and more empathetic mind to really seek to understand where our Israeli cousins are coming from.
Second. Support organizations that are doing the work of fighting for democracy in Israel like the Israel Religious Action Center, USA for Israeli Democracy and The New Israel Fund. Just as rabbis asked for funds from the bima 50 years ago, I am asking. I am asking you to donate to Israeli organizations that match your values and speak to the issues that touch your heart. Just as Israelis need to know we are with them, they need more than just moral encouragement. They need your financial support in the fight for democracy, in the fight for civil liberties, in the fight for minority and human rights, in the fight for a Judaism that is inclusive, egalitarian and diverse, in the fight for the kind of Israel we want to see.
Third, show up. 50 years ago, as Israel’s future was threatened, we also found a way to act here, on these shores, with moral beauty: Vietnam, Roe v. Wade, LGBTQ rights, Women’s rights, anti-nukes. We stood up. We marched. We made our voices heard. Let’s reclaim some of that moral courage. As diaspora Jews, as citizens of the Jewish people, we have both a right and a responsibility to raise our voices for Israel to maintain herself as a liberal democracy. Join UnXeptable (spelled with an X) and show up at one of their local protests; stay tuned for a Westchester wide 60s style “teach in.”
While this crisis will ultimately be settled at the polls, leading thinkers have made it clear that our voices are essential. As Danny Gordis says, “Doing nothing is to put yourself on the wrong side of history.”
Now, it might be asked, why not just abandon Israel? Why keep supporting her if she continues to go down this path? I support her and her people because she is family and you don’t abandon family. If a family member was ill, I would do everything in my power to get the care and help they needed. Even if I disagreed with their decisions, I would never abandon them. Jews don’t cancel Jews. We set a place for the wicked child at our seder table and we don’t desert our people in times of trouble. Plus, Israel is my home. It is a land where I have lived and learned, a country where I have wandered and worked. Just because we don’t live there does not mean we can’t feel a strong sense of connection to it. We can go years without visiting, yet we face Israel when we pray and pay attention to its news. Israel’s food, language and spirit light me up like no other place on earth. Even if I disagree with her government’s actions, her mere existence makes me proud to be Jewish. Love her, hate her or feel indifferent towards her, can you imagine a world without Israel? What would that be like? Just sit with that thought and feeling for a moment.
But there is a more practical reason for Jews in North America to remain connected to, concerned about and engaged with what is happening in Israel. Our fate as Jews is bound up with hers. It is like we are conjoined twins. It is no accident that the rise of Jewish identity and opportunity in America coincided with the formation and growth of the State of Israel. Whether we like it or not, we as Jews are identified with Israel. Over the past 75 years, Israel’s presence has raised the perception of all of us here at home. What will happen to our standing if Israel truly becomes an autocratic and apartheid state, not just the one her current enemies falsely accuse her of being?
If Yom Kippur teaches us anything, it is that through Teshuva, Tefillah and Tzedakah, through self-actualization, prayer and righteous giving, we can create a life of meaning and purpose. We are not victims. We are actors on this stage called life. We have a role. We have a responsibility. It is to be partners with Israel in helping to shape her future. Our fate is bound up with hers and hers with ours. 50 years from now, when our children and grandchildren ask, “where were you? What did you do?” you can look at them and say, “I answered the call. I said Hineini.”
Over my right shoulder is a triangular window. Its presence is purposeful as are the words around it. “Or Chadash Al Tzion - Shine a New Light upon Zion.” It serves as a constant reminder of Israel’s presence in our lives and also, as a portal for our prayers. If you exited that window and flew 5,680 miles at a bearing of 61.5 degrees east of north, you would land in Jerusalem. You would land in Zion. While our prayers should go upward, outward and inward, there are also times where they should travel eastward. This is one of those times.
Dear God, may our prayers, our actions and our advocacy travel through this portal to a land and a people that has been part of our story, our narrative and our memory for generations because, as the Talmud reminds us, “Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh ba Zeh - all of Israel are responsible for one another.”
Let us do all we can so that a new light may truly shine upon Zion. Then we will become Am Chofshi b’Artzeinu - a free people in our land. It is the hope of 2000 years and that hope is not yet lost. It still beats deep within our hearts.
We all rise as the choir leads us in Hatikvah as a closing anthem.