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Identifying with Israel

Rabbi Richard Plavin

Friends – I want you to count with me to 15

1, 2, 3……

How far could you run in that amount of time? Could you make it to a bomb shelter – if we had one? I wanted you to experience that short interval and to know that is exactly had long you would have had to get yourself into a bomb shelter if you heard the siren in Sderot, or any one of several towns in the southern part of Israel. Just 15 seconds. That’s all. And you get no extension or do-over if you are in the shower, or you are sitting in a wheel chair, or you are an infant and cannot count to 15.

I asked you to do this so you could have just the smallest taste of what the Jews of Sderot live with 365 days a year. This past July our congregational Israel group visited that small town, barely 2 miles from Gaza, and sat in the bomb shelter of the amazing indoor playground built there just 2 years ago. The playground was constructed after a Christian minister visited Sderot, learned that the children could never play out of doors because of the threat of rockets, and wondered what could be done to help them. He was so outraged and saddened at the thought of children never being able to play outside that he went to the leadership of the JNF, the Jewish National Fund we all know so well for tree planting, and shared his concern. Together with input from the IDF, the Israel Defense Force, this giant playground was carefully designed. Every inch of the structure has the safety of the children in mind. How sad is that? A playground should be designed so children don’t hurt themselves too badly when they fall off a swing, or when they slip on a playscape. Their safety concern should not have to take into account an enemy just a few miles away that randomly showers rockets on them. In that bomb shelter, which doubled as a basketball court, we heard about the 15-second warning system, and the bravery of the residents of Sderot. One listener asked, “Why would anyone continue to live here under such horrendous circumstances?” The answer was given in the strongest terms: “We will not allow the enemies of Israel to drive us from our homes.” These people live with what has accurately been called ‘an existential threat.’ And in truth, it is not only the people of Sderot who live with this threat; the very state of Israel is in mortal danger. As I heard the words of our Haftarah this morning, that experience and that reality sat heavily on my heart.

Lisa and I spent several weeks in Israel this past July, first with our congregational group, and then a few days more with family. On several occasions we passed the sign for Kever Rachel, the tomb of Rachel, and every time, I would think of the verse we read in the Haftarah, and I would marvel at the miracle of this prophetic prediction coming to pass.

15 This is what the Lord says:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
 mourning and great weeping,
Rachel weeping for her children
 and refusing to be comforted,
 because they are no more.”

16 This is what the Lord says:

“Restrain your voice from weeping
 and your eyes from tears,
for your work will be rewarded,”
declares the Lord.
  “They will return from the land of the enemy.

17 Yesh Tikvah l’Acharitech, n’um Adonai, So there is hope for your descendants,”
declares the Lord.
V’shavu banim l’gvulam. “Your children will return to their own land.”

The assertion of this holiday is a message of hope. Jeremiah was correct when he prophesied the return to the land. We have every reason to believe that he is correct as well about the hope. And bottom line, Ayn brayrah – there is no alternative.
But how do people retain that hope in such dire circumstances?

I believe that knowing that they are on their own land, that they are fulfilling God’s will in being there, engenders tremendous courage. It has done that for 64 years.
I want to take you back to the founding of Israel and tell a story that was current then. It was during the War of Independence, and every kibbutz and settlement had to have Shomrim, guards, walking the perimeter every night. In truth, they still do require guards, but here is the key difference: today the guards have weapons. Back in 1948 there were no weapons to be distributed. So the guards were instructed to carry a broomstick and if they heard any strange sound they were to point it as if they had a rifle. The main thing was to sound threatening. One night Shmueli was on guard and he heard something rustling in the bushes. He shouts, “Who goes there? Whoever it is, come out or I’ll shoot.” Slowly, Yossi emerged from the bushes. Shmeuli yelled at him “Are you crazy, I could have killed you.” Yossi responded, “With what? Not with that broomstick. I’m a tank.”

It’s an amusing story in a dark way, and it highlights a reality. We have become so accustomed to a powerful State of Israel that we can longer recapture that feeling of vulnerability. Friends, what we need to understand is that in fact, Israel is still totally vulnerable. But the dangers today are of a different sort.

Israel is the only country in the world that has to argue its right to exist; to defend its very legitimacy as a nation. In this election year, both political parties made recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel a plank in their platform. Did they have to recognize Mexico City as the capital of Mexico, or London the capital of Great Britain? Israel is the only nation in the world whose right to declare its own capital is in question. It is truly absurd, and frightening. Just consider how many times Israel’s legitimacy as a nation has been ratified. A partial list would include the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the League of Nations Mandate in 1922, the UN Partition Vote in 1947 and UN membership since 1949 – and still the world has to debate whether Israel is a legitimate nation! Do you think the fact that Israel is a Jewish state has anything to do with it? Y’think? This is a form of anti-Semitism.

And consider the various so-called human rights groups and humanitarian causes. With all the abuses in this world, why is there such a focus on Israel, a remarkable moral democracy? Israel sends hundreds of truck loads a week of food and medicine into Gaza, provides Gaza with electricity and water, and this is the territory that continues to pummel Israel with rockets, nearly six hundred so far this year. Is that is where a flotilla ought to be going to bring aid? Where is the flotilla for the refugees from Syria, where the government is slaughtering its own people at a prodigious rate?

There is also the danger that comes from dealing with an enemy that has an irrational, blinding hatred of Israel and Jews. This is not a matter of opinion or speculation. We hear it from them every day. Egyptian television recently aired a documentary based on the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” an ugly anti-Semitic tract published in Russia over 100 years ago. In Israel, Arabic has long been a required subject in the curriculum of Jewish schools on the theory that you can get along better with people if you speak their language. This year, Gaza added Hebrew into their school curriculum. They call the program, “Know your Enemy.”

This hatred expresses itself in the lies that are promulgated and repeated, such as the story of one, only one, refugee population, the Palestinian refugees. There is no recognition of a population of Jews, of equal number, that were driven from their homes in Arab countries and would have become refugees had Israel not taken them in.

Yet another lie is the denial of any Jewish connection to the land of Israel. It is hard for us to conceive that such a lie can be presented. We know about our connection to the land going back to the time of Abraham, and that comes from the Torah that is supposedly honored by the Koran. Yet, when Mahmoud Abbas spoke at the UN General Assembly last September he mentioned only a Christian and Muslim link to the land even though the Jewish presence predates by over a thousand years any other peoples’ connection.

Of course, the ultimate mortal danger is Iran and the intention expressed by its leaders to annihilate the Jewish State. We have learned from sad experience not to ignore such threats, and when they come from a nation rushing to build a nuclear bomb, we need say no more.

So, friends, in the face of these dangers, how do we maintain a belief in the prophecy we read today – Yesh tikvah – there is hope for the future.

I have that hope. I believe that prophecy with all my heart and I will explain why.
I believe that the establishment of the modern State of Israel and its 64 years of survival and thriving is a sign of God’s hand in history and is the fulfillment of prophecy. Any rational person hearing the tale would think it has to be fiction. But Ben Gurion said it well, “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.”

If we were talking about any other land and any other people, I would agree there is no hope. But Israel is exceptional, and so is the Jewish people. I see things in Israel and have experiences there that I could not have anywhere else. We all have our Israel stories. Let me share just one. Years ago we brought our young teen-age daughter to JFK airport for her flight to Israel to spend a few weeks with her cousins before we joined her there. The security officer who interrogated her at check-in had one major concern: “Who will meet you at the airport in Tel Aviv?” “And what will you do if your uncle isn’t there?” Her answers seemed to reassure him. Two weeks later, Lisa and I came to JFK to check-in for our own flight. The same security officer was on duty and recognized us immediately, “So,” he asked, “Did her uncle meet her at the airport?” That is what it means to be part of the Jewish people, one big mishpacha. And the land itself? Consider this difference between New York and Tel Aviv. In New York the buses have a sign that reserves the first few seats for the elderly. In Tel Aviv, the buses have a sign that quotes Leviticus 19, “Stand up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly.” Giving up your bus seat for an elder isn’t a law, it’s a Mitzvah.

And I have hope because I know we have experience dealing with those who hate us, and thank God, things today are quite different than they were in ages past. The existence of the State of Israel, and the IDF, is an assurance of the continued welfare of both the Jewish State and the Jewish people.

Last April, Rabbi David Wolpe gave a powerful speech at an AIPAC conference in Los Angeles. He quoted a poem by Amir Gilboa that he said summed up Jewish history in three lines.

If they show me a stone and I say it’s a stone, they will agree. It’s a stone. 
If they show me a tree and I say it’s a tree, they will agree. It’s a tree.
But if they show me my blood and I say it is blood, they will say it’s color.”

It’s true. For thousands of years Jewish blood was just color and now for the first time in 2,000 years we can say ‘NO,’ it is not mere color, it is blood. Prime Minister Menachem Begin said it very powerfully. “Jewish blood is not free.” Because of the strength of the Jewish people, and the Jewish State, Jewish blood is not mere color, and it is not free.

So yes, there is hope for our future. 
Yesh tikvah l’achreetech.

And one final point. In so many circumstances over the millennia the Jewish People have had occasion to ask, “May-ayin yavo ezri?” “From where will our help come?” The answer has always been, “Ezri may-im HaShem” My help comes from the Lord.
With God’s help, with a resilient and courageous Jewish people in Israel, with an American Jewish community that takes seriously its responsibility toward Israel, Israel will continue to thrive and be a source of pride for us all.

Sat, July 2 2022 3 Tammuz 5782