Rosh Hashannah Morning Sermon 2014 / 5775
“How I spent my summer vacation” By Daniel Cohen
That’s the title of this sermon.
Now, I don’t typically give my sermons titles, but this morning’s sermon is far from typical. It is, in fact, different from any sermon I have previously given here at TSTI.
As many of you know, I had the opportunity to spend part of July in Israel as a participant and co-leader of the very first rabbinic mission for progressive rabbis sponsored by AIPAC’S educational foundation. There were twenty of us on the trip, with Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbis represented. The goal of the mission was to give us — all committed Zionists in our own right — a broader understanding of and appreciation for Israel’s complexities and challenges.
We arrived in Israel on Tuesday afternoon, claimed our luggage, got on the bus, and headed toward Jerusalem. As we left the airport, our tour guide, Amy, told us that her home in Modiin had already experienced rocket fire from Gaza, and she and her children had been in their bomb shelter twice the night before. Because of the missile threat, she told us, we would be taking an alternate route into Jerusalem.
It was immediately clear to me that this visit to Israel would be different from any of the 16 trips I had taken previously.
Once we arrived in Jerusalem, we quickly checked into our hotel and were ferried off to a lovely meal and a discussion with Yossi Klien HaLevi, one of Israel’s leading thinkers. The original itinerary had us waking up at 5 o’clock the next morning to go to one of the crossings between the Palestinian territories and Israel. There we would meet with Israeli civil rights leaders who keep an eye on how Israeli soldiers treat the Palestinians who are coming into Israel. At the end of our meal we were told that, due to security concerns, the meeting was cancelled.
When we arrived at the hotel after dinner, we were all exhausted. It was then that we heard a Red Alert indicating that missiles were headed toward Jerusalem.
The hardened stairwell at the hotel doubled as a bomb shelter, and so there I stood for ten minutes, waiting for the “all clear.” When it came, I went downstairs and found my colleagues. We were all a bit shaken by what we had just experienced. And we had a new appreciation for the reality with which Israelis live each and every day.
The next morning, we were told that our itinerary had been altered yet again, and that a few of our speakers would not be able to make their meetings with us.
A quick check of social media drove the seriousness of the situation further home.
My friend Doron posted that he and his family had spent the entire night in a bomb shelter because of incoming missiles. Thankfully, each was intercepted by Iron Dome.
My friend Mike posted that his eldest son had called him to say goodbye. He would be out of contact for the next few days as he and his IDF unit prepared for a possible ground assault into Gaza.
Each time we entered a building, the people with whom we were meeting pointed out the location of the bomb shelter. We discovered an iOS application called [Red-Alert Israel] that had been created to let us know when missiles were fired and where they were headed. We all found ourselves constantly checking it on our cell phones and tablets.
“Surreal” is the best way to describe the experience.
But that was just the beginning.
The next day we were visiting the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, meeting with the Israeli Ambassador to Geneva. Suddenly the words “Zeva Adom- Red Alert” came over the PA system. The ambassador told us to stay put. We were already sitting in a hardened room. Staffers rushed in, and we pulled the heavy metal door closed. In typical Israeli fashion, the ambassador looked at us and said, “Okay, let’s continue.” And we did.
Such is the Israeli way.
The meeting ended. We walked outside and we looked up. And we saw that the solid blue sky was interrupted by two distinct white lines. They were the trails where Iron Dome had intercepted missiles that had been headed directly for us.
Things went from real to very real in a hurry.
The rest of our trip proceeded in the same basic manner. From minute to minute we didn’t know whether our itinerary would remain the same or have to be altered because of security concerns. And each time we entered a building, the first thing we did was locate the nearest bomb shelter.
We were supposed to begin our second to last day by visiting Tel Aviv. From there we would go to Haifa to visit people who are working to build bridges between Israeli Jews and Arabs. Unfortunately, there were multiple missiles fired toward Tel Aviv that morning, and that part of our trip, like so many others, was cancelled. My personal disappointment evaporated as I thought of my relatives in Ramat HaSharon, my friends in Rechovot, and the members of our congregation such as Andrew Giles who were in Tel Aviv at that very moment.
We made our way to the Golan Heights, and we stopped just shy of the Syrian border where our vantage point allowed us to see Lebanon and Syria and Israel in a single glance. It drove home just how small the Jewish State actually is. While we were there, our security detail had binoculars to their eyes and were scanning the other side of the Syrian border. I thought they were being overly cautious, but shortly after we left the Golan Heights we received a report that a missile fired from Syria had landed in close proximity to where we had just been.
The trip was going to end in very much the same way it began.
Now I know that none of this is what you expect to hear on Rosh Hashanah. And I apologize for the detailed description of the conflict. But all of that background becomes relevant when I tell you this…
As we were on the bus headed toward our last meeting, I became aware that mixed in with my exhaustion, my overwhelming sense of sadness for the Gazan civilians who were being killed, the deep sense of pride I was feeling for Israel and the IDF, and the intense anxiety that had been my constant companion that week, I was experiencing another emotion.
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but on the bus headed toward our last stop, I found myself feeling… angry.
I was angry that my Israeli family and friends had to live like this on a daily basis.
I was angry that Hamas was terrorizing the Israeli people.
I was angry that Hamas was terrorizing the Palestinian people of Gaza.
I was angry that Israel had established cease-fires so that humanitarian aid could make its way into Gaza, and Hamas had broken every. single. one. of. them.
I was angry that when a missile struck an Israeli city, there was celebration in Gaza and in parts of the West Bank.
I was angry that few in the media were reporting the reality I was experiencing, and that they were depicting Israel as an aggressor with no concern for human life. I knew the reality was the exact opposite.
I was angry that deaths were being reported as simple numerical graphics displayed on the television. No civilian death — be it Israeli or Palestinian — is simply a number.
I was angry that the media’s handling of the conflict was fueling the fire of anti-Israel sentiment.
And I was angry about the growing anti-Semitism throughout the world. Suddenly, it seemed to be okay to openly express hatred for Jews.
I was angry. And I was afraid.
I was afraid for the future of Israel.
I was afraid for the future of American Jewry.
I was afraid for the future of Judaism.
Then we reached our last stop – an Israeli hospital in the Galilee. We met with a vascular surgeon who told us that he and his colleagues had been giving up their days off to treat Syrians wounded in the Syrian civil war who had found their way to the Israeli border. The surgeon told us that he wasn’t sure how they were going to pay for the medical care they were providing, but they weren’t thinking about that. They needed to save lives and those details, as he put it, would have to wait.
And he told us that he and others were doing all of this good and important work because it’s the Jewish thing to do.
We went upstairs and spent some time with a three-year-old Syrian boy who had been shot in the leg by a Syrian sniper. The boy’s father had considered taking him to Jordan, but he was told that they would simply amputate the leg there. So father and son made their way to the Israeli border. They were allowed in, Israeli doctors operated, and the boy was going to make a full recovery.
Through a translator, we asked the boy’s father what he thought of Israel and Jews. He replied that he been told that Jews were the devil, but then offered that his opinion was “beginning to change.”
Think about it for a moment- Israeli surgeons had saved the leg of this man’s son, and Jewish doctors and nurses were treating father and son with care and respect. And the best this man could offer was that his opinion of Israelis and Jews was “beginning to change.”
There was, however, no possibility that the boy’s opinion would change. You see, he didn’t even know he was in Israel at all. The father was so concerned about what the boy would say when they returned to Syria that he had told the child they were still there. And out of concern for the boy’s safety, the Israeli doctors, nurses and orderlies weren’t telling him otherwise.
At the airport that night, we told one of the Israelis helping us about our experience at the hospital. One of my colleagues commented that he didn’t understand why there wasn’t more being said publicly about the amazing work that Israelis are doing to treat the Syrian wounded while the rest of the world looks on… and does nothing. The man smiled and said, “We don’t need anyone else to know. We know, and it is simply what we do.”
It’s the JEWISH thing to do.
A few weeks after my return from Israel, Yair Lapid, Israel’s finance minister and the chairman of the Yesh Aid party, delivered a speech at the Platform 17, Holocaust Memorial Site, Berlin. His words helped put everything I had experienced in perspective.
“The Holocaust,” he stated, “placed before Israel [and I would add before all Jews] a dual challenge:
On the one hand it taught us that we must survive at any price, and be able to defend ourselves at any price. Trainloads of Jews will never again depart from a platform anywhere in the world. [Our security] must forever be in our hands alone.”
But then he continued,
“On the other hand, the Holocaust taught us that no matter the circumstances we must always remain moral people. Human morality is not judged when everything is ok, it is judged by our ability to see the suffering of the other, even when we have every reason to see only our own.”
As the rabbis of old put it
I’m ain ani li mili – If I am not for myself who will be for me
oochsheani laatzmi mah ani – If I am only for myself what am I.
So going back to the title of my sermon, “How did I spend my summer vacation?”
I spent my summer vacation being reminded of why Judaism has survived for thousands of years and why it matters that Judaism continues.
I spent my summer vacation reaffirming my belief in the centrality of Israel to the future of Judaism and to the well-being of the world.
I spent my summer vacation witnessing first-hand the Jewish values that I hold dear.
I spent my summer vacation grateful to be an American Jew who is in a position to continue building Jewish life here as I also do my part to help to secure the safety of the Jewish State.
And I sincerely hope that you will join me in both endeavors.
Because now more than ever, we need a safe, secure Israel. And now more than ever Israel needs a strong, involved and committed American Jewish community.