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"Our Sacred Soil" - Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779

09/11/2018 02:20:29 PM


Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

L’shanah tovah.

This morning’s Torah portion[1] contains one of the key principles that define the mission of the people of Israel.

This first principle is foundational to our people’s ethos and lies within God’s description of the commissioning of Abraham as a prophet of Israel. This element defines not only who we are as a people, but also what we must do to merit the title of “Israelite”, one who strives—even with God—and prevails.

We discover this basic ethical component when we hear God engaging in an internal debate on whether and how to disclose to Abraham the Holy One’s intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. In the text, God says:

“Since I have known [Abraham] intimately, [I will tell him] so that he will command his own children, and all his descendants, that they should observe the way of the Eternal, which is to perform righteousness [tzedakah] and justice [mishpat]; [and I will tell him] so that I, the Eternal, may bring about for Abraham what I have promised him.”[2]

God’s rationale embodies benefits that would return to Abraham, such as blessings of numerous descendants[3], universal greatness[4], and a land to call his own[5]; God also identifies responsibilities that come down to us: to manage our affairs through righteous and just deeds, and to demonstrate proper stewardship of the sacred soil that Abraham bequeaths to his posterity.

Now: ‘stewardship of the soil’ is not an obligation only in an agricultural context. Today’s Torah reading suggests that the people of Israel can claim legitimate possession of the land only through performing acts of tzedakah—our doing what is right—and verdicts of mishpat—proclaiming what is just—within the land.

‘Observe these sacred obligations’, God implies, ‘and Israel will merit true sanctity', that is, a sense that God’s moral and ethical commandments will inspire future generations of Israel.

Sadly, as close as we have come to these ideals in some generations, we’ve not yet arrived at a time when we fully merit God’s presence in the land of Israel. The chilling and portentous events in Israel over the past few years suggest that we have a long way to go before we can effectuate God’s original intentions for the land.

There was a time when we had earned God’s sacred presence. In the book of Exodus, when God initiates the process for serving God in the desert, the Torah places this sacred commandment in God’s mouth: “Let them build me a mikdash, a sanctuary, so that I can dwell with them.”[6] The Exodus text assures that God desired to live among us and help to direct our behavior.

And even when Israel went into exile, so says a midrash of the Talmud, God quit the land and went with her, to celebrate her accomplishments, to comfort her at times of sorrow. In that midrash, God commanded them to build, wherever they settle, a ‘mikdash me’at’, a miniature sanctuary, a place where God could find a home, and a symbol to which they could turn in times of need.

But I believe even this miniature sanctuary of God’s can exist only when we act righteously and advocate justice. In our day, even as the people of Israel is happily reunited with the land of Israel, there are dangers: a loss of democracy when Jewish ultra-religious minorities receive a disproportionate amount of power; increased tribalism, which has led Israel to alliances with nations experiencing similar right-leaning phenomena; and unconscionable disregard in some realms for equality of her ethnic and racial minorities.

By the way, any parallels to events in other nations is purely coincidental…but nonetheless quite unfortunate.

Our task is to determine how best to bring increased righteousness and justice to the land. And we, living in the Diaspora, must be involved through the performance of the moral and ethical standards of our people.

These two concepts—tzedakah and mishpat, righteousness and justice—are like the colossal foundation stones of the ancient Jerusalem Temple that physically supported the Temple walls, and spiritually undergirded centuries of religious life. For a nation to stand firm and grow strong, it must establish itself on a legitimate, positive, moral, and ethical ideological premise, such as performing righteous deeds and enacting just laws, and my hope is that, as a world-wide Jewish community, we can take these two Abrahamic values of righteousness and justice, and use them to fortify Israel’s foundation, so that she will conduct her internal and external life in righteous and just ways.

Although we may each have many different feelings about the modern state of Israel, we Jews are undeniably and unalterably connected to her. As Jews and as people connected to the Jewish community, we cannot easily escape this connection. Further, we know that what affects one, affects the other.

*     *     *     *

Now, this connection has its benefits:

Israel guaranteed in its Declaration of Independence of 1948 that the state “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”[7]. Hearing these words, we offer praise and support for the generation of Israel’s founders who enshrined this concept in the history of not only Israel but also of humanity. We feel a sense of pride in Israel’s place in the world, for in that section of Israel’s Declaration lie the seeds of righteousness and justice. It would be a joyful duty to support Israel were she to grow as a society that personifies these values.

*     *     *     *

Our connections to the land of Israel also has its challenges:

In recent years, the values of righteousness and justice seem to have been tested and found insufficient.

When local Israeli municipalities assume the ersatz religious authority to control secular women’s attire or mandate separate men’s and women’s seating on public buses, we sense a lessening of righteousness and justice.

When a governing coalition blocks passage of a law permitting two gay men to jointly adopt a child, we see a violation of these values.

When the Haifa branch of the Orthodox rabbinate has a Conservative rabbi detained and interrogated because he had the ‘audacity’ to perform a wedding in Israel not under the auspices of the Orthodox rabbinate, we feel the degradation of those basic ethical guidelines.

These are symptoms of a civil society in peril.

*     *     *     *

But wait, there’s—sadly—more.

Consider the recently passed—by a bare majority, mind you—Israel’s new Basic Law on “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People”.[8] This new legislation could reverse the course of human rights and liberty for a good portion of Israel’s citizens, and threatens righteousness and justice within the land.[9]

The language of this new law seems to purposely avoid the call for equality of all Israel’s citizens, as we find in the Declaration of Independence. If fact, an early version of the bill would have allowed the state “to establish separate communities based on ethnicity or religion”. In other words, communities would have been better able to discriminate against minorities, a term here I use to refer to Israel’s Arab citizens[10].

I breathe somewhat easier knowing that such extreme language did not enter the final version of the law. But the law as passed included two ill-composed clauses that do trouble Israel’s Arab minority: “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”[11] And “The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation[12]”. Taken together, these two sentences could create an official move toward “Jewish privilege”, and could eliminate or severely curtail the rights of minority populations when it comes to individual housing, or even the proper apportionment of the land in an eventual two-state peace settlement.

The way I see it, those who feel the same despondency as I do have only two options before us.

We can turn away from Israel and totally deny our responsibility to be involved with influencing the moral direction of the Jewish state.

Or we can continue to be engaged, despite the emotional upsets of the present generation.

We can offer support to those organizations and movements that support the civil state in the face of such extremism, such as the Campaign for Religious Equality sponsored by the Reform and Conservative movements, or the Jewish Federations' Israel Religious Expression Platform (iREP). Ask me about this after services.

Just this past week, in fact, a new public opinion survey among Israelis shows that Israelis see a need for further separation of religion and state. I digress to offer a sampling of these promising survey results:

Today, two-thirds of Jewish Israelis support separation of religion and state, representing an increase of 10 percentage points since 2012. Seventy percent back government recognition of all forms of marriage, including civil marriage — an increase from 53 percent in 2009. Sixty-six percent believe that the three major denominations of Judaism — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — should enjoy equal status in Israel.

And in results that are more geared to the everyday life of Israelis, more than 70 percent want increased public transit on Shabbat.

Suffice to say that the tide is turning among secular Israelis, who now wish to have help from the Diaspora Jewish community in moving their country to a place of true equality.

So being involved in this pluralistic work, again, is one way we can be involved.

But wait, there is -- happily more.

We can, by writing letters to the editor or talking with our friends, support Israel’s defensive posture against Hamas’ propaganda or rocket and resistance attacks. At the same time, we can -- if it is warranted -- be critical of Israel's prosecution of any military encounter with its enemies.

We can raise our voices in protest when Jewish thinkers or leaders of civil state organizations are stopped at Ben Gurion airport and interrogated about their ideologies before being allowed to enter the country.

In these and many ways, we can seek to help Israel renew a call for righteousness and justice.

Look: Israel can be a place of inspiration and pride, a beacon of humane values, a start-up nation whose fame is known not only through technological breakthroughs and military moxie, but also through her laboratory of ethical practices where Israelis learn to bring forth the essence of Torah values.

Here is what we can advocate:

By suppressing petty political squabbles and establishing the moral high ground of which she is capable, she can become that ‘mikdash’, that ‘holy place’, that God assigned the people of Israel to build.

By continuing to welcome her exiles, she can be that sanctuary against the antisemitism that continues to afflict our world.

By offering sanctuary to refugees from various nations, she can fulfill the 37 commands of Torah to care for the stranger among us.

By striving for justice for those persecuted by racism, bigotry, and homophobia, she can preserve liberty for all the marginalized in her society.

By refusing to give in to the nativist and tribal tendencies of some of her right-wing politicians, she can act righteously and offer the justice referred to in today’s Torah portion.

By thinking carefully about how to live among Middle Eastern entities awash in their own tribal loyalties and anti-Israel sentiment, she can encourage the US government to return to its position as a neutral arbiter in the peace process, so that all parties feel that their concerns are addressed.

By maintaining the democracy that is inherent in her governmental structure and enshrined in her Declaration of Independence, she can give majority rule back to the majority of her citizens.

By employing the concepts of righteousness and justice, she can become more like the land that Abraham and God envisioned in Torah, a land where her citizens will celebrate the sanctity of God, and the holiness of humanity.

*     *     *     *

Whew! That is a large agenda...but one that is doable and necessary if Israel wishes to preserve and promote the values of righteousness and justice we cherish in our 4,000-year-old tradition.

The Torah and the midrash of our people describe an Abraham who involved himself in both the internal matters of his family, and the grander and more consequential process of building a nation.

One element of that process was establishing a land and a maintaining a way of life there: one that was elevated above the ordinary; one that acted in humane ways; one that gave its people one day in seven to rest; one that offered an ethical approach to everyday life; one that saw even its rulers as never being above the law; one that established justice and righteousness as foundation stones for everything else it supported.

These are hopes set forth in Torah; and now that we have set forth our dream, let us continue to strive to make this dream real for future generations of our people, whether in this Diaspora where Jewish survival is never guaranteed, or the in land of Israel which has served as an anchor of Jewish identity, and which needs to become an exemplar in the world of moral and ethical leadership.

*     *     *     *

We know that dreams of a better future can ignite human imagination to accomplish great things. Think about what we have done:

When a nomadic people establishes a nation driven by moral and ethical values;

When the concept of a small and legendary desert sanctuary evolves to become a magnificent Jerusalem Temple;

When a ragtag band of freedom fighters overthrows a powerful Syrian-Greek army and re-establishes their nation’s sovereignty;

We accomplished all of this in the past—and we can do this once again: by declaring, and acting upon a foundation of moral and ethical values that supports all that we do.

God’s commandments directed this. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob, Leah, and Rachel recognized this> And I hope we will as well!

L’shanah Tovah.

Lyrics for sermon anthem: Shiro Shel Aba, Naomi Shemer, words; Nachum Heiman, composer. 1970.



[1] Genesis 18:16 ff, Abraham’s bargaining with God over Sodom and Gomorrah

[2] Genesis 18:19

[3] Genesis 12:2; 13:16; 15:5; 17:4-6

[4] Genesis 12:3

[5] Genesis 12:7; 13:15; 15:7; 17:8

[6] Exodus 25:8

[8] ישראל - מדינת הלאום של העם היהודי

[9] There are some benign parts of this law. Asserting that Jewish holidays and the Jewish calendar are part of the nation’s ethos, along with exceptions for other religions and their religious needs; declaring the state symbols and anthem; the openness of the state to Jewish in-migration: These qualities of the law support the Jewish character of the state in appropriately Jewish ways.

[11] Section 1, paragraph C, Israel’s Basic Law -- Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People

[12] Ibid., Section 7, paragraph A

January 19, 2021 6 Sh'vat 5781