Vayechi: December 30, 2017

Shabbat Shalom

One of the things we learn when we study the Bible is that any Parsha that has in its name “Chai”, “Life”, usually means that someone in the Parsha will die. The Torah wants to keep the lessons upbeat; but death is also a part of life, so Torah also teaches us how to die with dignity.

Jacob, the third patriarch, is about to die. Unlike his father and grandfather, Jacob’s death is a lot more complicated. Jacob is no longer the simple shepherd in the land promised to his ancestors. Jacob is the father of one of the most important men in Egypt. His death has political repercussions. If Jacob is to be buried in the family tomb in Hebron, then he will have to play the political game to make it happen.

By making Joseph swear a formal oath to his father, to bury Jacob in the family plot, Joseph will have to be given permission by Pharaoh to participate in a state funeral out of the country. Pharaoh will not have Joseph violate an oath made to his dying father. The funeral will be so large that the people who live in Canaan will remember it as the great wailing of Egyptians. They had never seen anything like it.

That is the way of politics. Nothing can be easy. Diplomacy requires that every “i” is dotted and every “t” crossed. And if it suits the diplomats, then they can even call black, “white” or visa-versa. Why does all of this matter? When the issue is preventing a war, or stopping death and destruction, how you bring peace is just as important as the fact that peace becomes possible.

So, it has been for the past 70 years in diplomatic circles when it comes to Israel. Israel always assumed that its capital would be in Jerusalem and as soon as it was safe, all government offices were moved to Jerusalem. There has never been any question that Jerusalem was to be the capital of the new Jewish state. But Israel was born in a war with her neighbors. To stop the war, diplomats had to maintain that Jerusalem was NOT the capital at all. Countries that had diplomatic relations with Israel placed their embassies in Tel Aviv. The original partition plan from the UN said Jerusalem would be an international city, not part of either the Jewish or Arab state. The war changed all of that and Jerusalem was divided. Still the western part of the city, under the control of Israel, became the capital of the new country.

In 1967, when the eastern part of the city came under the control of Israel, government offices were moved to the center of the city where they had been for generations before the war divided the city. But diplomatically, nothing had changed. All the government offices to the contrary, Jerusalem would not be considered the capital of the Jewish state.  We could talk about why this continued in the face of the facts on the ground. Some said it was the pressure from the oil rich states that did not want to see Israel continue. Some said it was anti-Semitism, that other countries did not want there to be a “Jewish State” at all. Some thought that countries had a fear of Arab terrorism coming to their land as a result of letting Jerusalem become the capital.

The Prime Minister of Israel made his home in Jerusalem; the President of Israel made his home in Jerusalem. But no other nation wanted to break the diplomatic boycott of Jerusalem by moving their embassy to Jerusalem. Until this year. Just a few weeks ago, the United States, followed by a couple of other small countries, finally admitted that the facts on the ground needed to be the legal facts as well. After years of broken promises by many past presidents of this country, Donald Trump, declared that it was no longer useful to maintain the boycott. The United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and would move its embassy there as soon as it was feasible. In fact, the United States had reserved some land long ago for a future embassy, but had postponed indefinitely building it. Now the plans are moving forward.

Why now? What happened that the diplomatic wall was broken? For one things the United States has a president who is not one to maintain diplomatic niceties. As he said when he made his declaration; it is just time to admit to the facts on the ground. But he also noted that there is nothing to prevent a future Palestinian state to have its capital there as well. While both sides insist that they will rule all of the city, there are ways to share the city as the capital of two states if that is what will make a two-state solution work.

But other realities have also come to bear on this announcement. Some say that the Arab split between Sunni and Shia Arabs, now a battle between Saudi Arabia and her allies with Iran, have made the Palestinian issue less important. There are more pressing issues in the Middle East than where the capital of Israel will be. There is also the fact that the United States (unlike Europe) is not as dependent on Arab oil. Israel is also a more strategic partner with the United States today. In the battle against terrorism, Israel has been most helpful to countries who have suffered terror attacks. I do believe that there are places in the world that can’t acknowledge that there is a Jewish state, but the reality is that they have   to be face the fact that Israel is a Jewish State. Jerusalem is its capital and those that are unhappy with that situation, will just have to deal with it.

Look, I know that Israel is not perfect. I could list a dozen things that I would prefer to see Israel address. It really does not matter when it comes to this issue. No state in the world is perfect, and Israel is still better than most. Jerusalem is the crown jewel of Israel and there can be no capital for a Jewish State that could rival this ancient city.

What makes this announcement all the more important is that the Palestinians have been working for many years now to erase all traces of Judaism from the Temple Mount. Their working hypothesis is that Jerusalem was never a Jewish City. That it was only sacred to Arabs and it is only in this modern age that Jews have tried to lay a claim to Jerusalem. This is so ridiculous that it hardly warrants a refutation. In almost every century for the past 3000 years, Jerusalem has been the center of Jewish life. There was a time when the State of Israel actually printed out material to “prove” that there was always a Jewish presence in Jerusalem. I wondered why they even bothered to do that until we started living in this world of “fake news” and “alternative facts”. After all, if the Palestinians put it up in Facebook that the Jews never lived in Jerusalem, it must be true … Facebook never lies!!

Well, this declaration by the United States has put an end to this kind of propaganda. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Our president has said it is time to acknowledge this bit of reality and claim it back from the diplomatic double talk where it has been in limbo for far too long. It was long overdue for someone to have the courage to say what has been true for almost 70 years. Israel is a Jewish state and Jerusalem is its capital. And if 128 other countries don’t have the courage that our country does, well that is their problem. The declaration changes nothing on the ground and everything in the political world. My hope is that it will be the beginning of all nations to come to the realization that closing eyes to the reality of Israel undermines their own integrity, not Israel’s.

I have lived in Jerusalem several times. I know most of her streets and neighborhoods. I know the people who live there, the vatikim – the old timers and the olim hadashim – the new arrivals. It is a city that you can really fall in love with. Perhaps, someday, we can walk her streets together and I can show you some of my own favorite places.

Until then, let us rejoice with Jerusalem and celebrate on her city walls. She will always be the center of our Jewish state, the city that we look to when we pray and the focus of Jewish spirituality for thousands of years. She is our capital again and may she shine today as she has done in ancient times. May God bless Jerusalem as God blesses all of us who see this holy city as the center of our faith, the city of peace…

As we say Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on December 30, 2017.