The People of Israel are nearing the end of their travels in the wilderness. They are approaching the Promised Land after their 40 years of punishment have come to an end. Our parshah has many details about how life for the Israelites will be different when they are no longer wandering and finally living a settled life.
But at the beginning of the final parsha, there is a long section that deals with the many different stops that Israel made as they journeyed from Egypt to the gates of the Promised Land. It is an extended travelogue of the places that the people had passed through on their way to their inheritance. In some ways, this look backwards is a bit surprising. Why, on the brink of attaining their goals, do they look back to see where they have come from? There is nothing in their past that will help them conquer the land that is before them. What is this list of stops along the trail all about?
I think that Moses wanted the people to think about how they came to be just across the river from the Promised Land. Many stops along the way were the location of valuable lessons that the people have carried as part of their cultural history, and I should say, it is part of our cultural history as well. There was, on the negative side, the many doubts they had about Moses’s leadership, and of their own abilities. There were rebellions and complaints that tested their resolve. There were many frustrations and much anger that needed resolution. On the other hand, there were also victories that encouraged the people forward. There were laws that were given to make their lives meaningful. There were many times they found that God was with them in their despair and that presence helped them to have faith in their future.
We finish the book of Bamidbar this Shabbat and next week we will begin the book of Devarim, or Deuteronomy. This book is a very different outlook than Bamidbar. In Devarim the people do not look back and Moses accuses them of selective memory. In Devarim Moses talks about a time when the people, settled in the land, begin to think that all that they possess in the land was acquired by their own hard work and they will forget the accomplishments of those who came before them. Devarim chastises the people over and over again, for forgetting who they are and where they came from. In their comfort in the land, they forget the hand that God and their ancestors played in making all their success possible.
Given our sense of history, we can point to many civilizations that collapsed when the people forgot where they came from and thought they only had to rely on themselves to reap the rewards of a good life; the sense of ingratitude to those who came before them. These people forget their own history and as the saying goes, they are doomed to repeat it. They lose all of their gains because they fail to look back and see the true source of what they enjoy today.
This is the way I have come to understand what is going on in political circles in Israel today. Certain Israeli political parties think that the many accomplishments of Israel are due only to the guidance and philosophy of their party. All sense of history has been erased. Like in Devarim, these politicians think that “their own hands have brought them to this time of success.”
How quickly they forget that in the early days of the State of Israel, it was investments by Diaspora Jews that made Israel financially stable. It was the ongoing investments in Israeli bonds that gave Israel the infrastructure to build the modern state. It was the dimes and quarters of children in countries all over the world, donated to JNF that allowed Israel to own the land that the new immigrants were given for homes and planted the forests that helped push back the desert. During the Yom Kippur War, when times were so dangerous, Diaspora Jews went to their leaders and created an airlift of military supplies that helped turn the tide of the war. During the two intifadas, when so many people were terrified to visit Israel, it was Diaspora Jews who defied the terrorists and came to Israel, bought Israeli products and prevented the economy of Israel from being destroyed. To this day the vast majority of Lone Soldiers, Jews serving in the military who have no family in Israel, are Diaspora Jews who believe in what Israel stands for.
When this government came to power, it needed these small parties to hold on to power in the country. I don’t blame the religious parties for trying to prevent their loss of power happening again. But I do blame the larger government that gave in to their threats, a government that should have understood its history and its connection with the diaspora, a diaspora that has little use for Haredi Judaism. It should not have let these small parties drive a wedge into that support. But the current government did not stand up to the threat. It decided that the petty needs of these small parties, to keep them in the coalition, was more important than the connection to world Jewry. And so, promises were broken, power was promised to the Haredi parties and their corrupt institutions were promised complete control of religious life in Israel as the only legitimate form of Judaism.
It is no wonder that Jewish leadership from all over the world has advised this Israeli government to change its course. It has encouraged the opposition parties to introduce legislation that will insure that there is a place for every Jew in Israel, from the Kotel to the synagogue in every hotel in the state, that conversions by Rabbis all over the world will be recognized in Israel by the government. All of world Jewry is now looking to see if this government will stand by its promises. And we are watching to see which politicians we can count on, which parties remember us, and which ones do not.
I find it interesting that these politicians declare that if more Diaspora Jews would come to Israel, then they could change the attitude of the government. But by not making Diaspora Jews welcome, they push away anyone who disagrees with the status quo that keeps them in control of the government. Rather than working to make more Jews around the world love Israel, they do so many things to show how little they care about us.
Our congregation is planning a trip to Israel next year. It is in the preliminary stages and we should make an official announcement, I hope by the holidays. Israel remains vitally important to World Jewry and World Jewry should still feel vitally important to Israel. We will work with our movement in Israel, the Masorti movement that supports those who work to remember what World Jewry has done for the State of Israel and that works on behalf of all Jews, to help us structure our visit. We will meet with leadership that understands Conservative Judaism and how important we are to building our Israel. We will support Israel and Israelis but not the government that thinks that our needs are not important to building Israel.
I don’t believe in a boycott of Israel. Israel is too important to me and to Judaism. But this government in Israel has severed all connection to me. Let them insist that their own hands have created the Jewish State, that they don’t need the help of anyone else to make Israel a success. We are a proud community of Jews who believe that women, Conservative Jews and Conservative Rabbis, are an important part of the future of Judaism. It is sad and short sighted that this government in Israel does not see this. As our movements decide where to put our money in Israel, this government should not be surprised if we limit our support to those who would advance our interests. No, we don’t vote in Israel, but there is more to Israel than who gets to vote.
It is time Israel recognized the ongoing contributions of World Jewry to the success of Israel’s economy and culture. Any government that does not see this, will blind their eyes at their own peril. These are dark days. It is time Israel remembered their path and the world wide Jewish community that made Israel possible and to treat all Jews, no matter their denomination, as partners in making Israel strong. History is not kind when one group of Jews separates itself from the rest of the community.
May God bless the State of Israel, and show its government the importance of all Israel and that we all must rely on each other. May all Jews learn to live and care about each other as we say … Amen and Shabbat Shalom.
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, July 22, 2017.