Thursday, September 17, 2015

Israel Chooses Life© Day 2 Rosh Hashanah 5776/2015

Israel Chooses Life©
Day 2 Rosh Hashanah 5776/2015
Rabbi David Baum
Congregation Shaarei Kodesh

A new rabbi was once hired by a congregation.  His predecessor was a divisive fellow, and unfortunately, through many of his sermons, he hurt many.  So the leadership of this congregation wanted to set their rabbi up for success, to talk to him about his sermons.  They asked him, “Rabbi, what are you going to speak about on the high holidays?”  “Well, he answers, I wanted to start off by talking about the value of Shabbat in our lives, how it’s central to what it means to be a Jew.”  The leaders looked at each other with terror, “Rabbi, if you do that, then you will alienate our many congregants who don’t keep Shabbat.  “Ok, well, my second day Rosh Hashanah sermon is about kashruth.  I believe that kashurth is the central, no, the essential element to what it means to be a Jew.”  A look of even greater terror came upon their faces – “Rabbi, for heaven’s sake, don’t talk about kashruth.  Our treasurer owns a rib restaurant in town, and as you can see by his waist, he certainly partakes.  He will be mortified and hurt, you cannot talk about Kashruth.”  The rabbi was astonished and confused, “I can’t talk about Shabbat, and I can’t talk about Kashruth, what can I talk about?” 

Say it with me now, “Talk about Judaism.”

Believe it or not, this happened to me this summer, not at our congregation, heaven forbid, this would never happen here.  It was a 21-year-old girl at Camp Ramah who told me what I couldn’t talk about.  I was at Ramah Darom teaching and preaching for two weeks.  For those who do not know, Ramah is the camping arm of the Conservative movement.  The camp is also a Hebrew speaking camp.  The idea is that all announcements in public are made in Hebrew only, no translation, and it’s a deeply Zionist camp.  In fact, they bring in 40 young Israelis each summer as representatives of the country to work there.  In short, there’s no Camp Ramah without Israel.  So when it came to teaching staff learning, naturally, I thought we could have a conversation about Israel and Iran, especially after the Iran Nuclear Deal was announced.  So I asked the Rosh Eidah, the unit head, what she thought.  “Rabbi, under no circumstances can you teach about Israel, it’s way too divisive.”  “So what should I teach about?” 

Well, you could guess her answer. 

But I have to talk about Israel and I have to talk about us, it’s just too important.  So please accept my apologies in advance for those who I might offend, but today, I have to talk about Judaism.

Rosh Hashanah literally means the head of the year.  We are standing on a mountain, and we have a choice, do we define ourselves according to our enemies?  Are we who we are ONLY because of Egypt, only because of Amalek, the tribe that sought our destruction?  Do we look backward to sadness and death, or do we look forward, to an unknown future, but a future of life? 

Our people were once at this point, standing beside a mountain 40 years after their parents were freed from slavery.  They were wandering, and finally, they were about to enter the Promised Land, and this is what Moshe told them:

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live—.”  Deuteronomy 30:19

And so today, we too must choose life – actually, it’s what we’ve always done as Jews.  Israel loves life, but many in the world seem to think otherwise, and when we see things on television or the internet, it might challenge these ideas that we hold so dearly.

When we see that an entire population from 18-21 must be in the army, and when we see them carrying machine guns in the streets.

When we see that Israel devotes a fifth of its national budget to it’s armed forces, but the poverty rate is so high, and people are starving. 

When we see people stabbed during Gay Pride parades, and Palestinian babies being burned in their beds by Jewish terrorists. 

When we see some of Israel’s minorities accusing Israel of not including them in the country because they aren’t Jews. 

When Israel is called out for being the only nation in the entire world opposed to the Iran Nuclear Deal, that they prefer bombing to diplomacy. 

Ba’charta BaChaim – Choose Life?!?  It doesn’t seem like Israel chooses life!   

I want to share a story with you: There were once two angels traveling and they stopped to spend the night in the home of a wealthy family. The family was rude and refused to let the angels stay in the mansion's guest room. Instead the angels were given a small space in the cold basement. As they made their bed on the hard floor, the older angel saw a hole in the wall and repaired it.

When the younger angel asked why, the older angel replied, "Things aren't always what they seem."

The next night the pair came to rest at the house of a very poor, but very hospitable farmer and his wife. After sharing what little food they had the couple let the angels sleep in their own bed where they could have a good night's rest.

When the sun came up the next morning the angels found the farmer and his wife in tears. Their only cow, whose milk had been their sole income, lay dead in the field.
The younger angel was infuriated and asked the older angel, "How could you have let this happen? The first man had everything, yet you helped him. The second family had little but was willing to share everything, and you let the cow die."

The older angel replies:  "Things aren't always what they seem.  When we stayed in the basement of the mansion, I noticed there was gold stored in that hole in the wall. Since the owner was so obsessed with greed and unwilling to share his good fortune, I sealed the wall so he wouldn't find it."

"Then last night as we slept in the farmers bed, the angel of death came for his wife. I gave him the cow instead. Things aren't always what they seem."

Things aren’t always what they seem:

We see that an entire population from 18-21 must be in the army, and when we see them carrying machine guns in the streets. When we see that Israel devotes a fifth of its national budget to it’s armed forces, but their poverty rate is so high.

What some do not see is how Israel views her soldiers – that every year when mothers and fathers drop their 18 year olds off, they cry.  They feel like Abraham bringing Isaac to the alter.  They hope and pray that the draft will end one day, that their children will not have to bring their grandchildren to the army base. 

What some do not see is that Israel has been in four major wars where losing meant the end of their lives, and numerous other wars where they are forced to choose – do we attack terrorists hiding behind civilians, risking our own lives, and in almost all cases, they choose NOT to kill – they choose life. 

The Israeli Army is not an attack force, it’s called Zahal – Zva L’Haganah L’Israel – the Army for the protection and defense of Israel.  That name might not strike fear in its enemies, but it is who we are – we choose life, and we always have, but it’s not just Israel, it’s our people.

What we don’t see when some in Israel’s minorities accuse Israel of discrimination because they aren’t Jewish is how minorities are treated in surrounding countries, or better yet, how everyone is treated in surrounding Arab countries.  How Arab Israelis have the right to vote and to be in the government, but wouldn’t have that right across the borders. 

We see stories of how minorities in Israel are embraced by the public, even by the Ultra-Orthodox. 

When a Druze Security guard named Zidan Saif gave his life to protect a synagogue last year in the Har Noff neighborhood of Jerusalem after it was attacked during prayer by Palestinian terrorists, the families of the victims came together, and raised money for Saif family.  Not only that, but Ultra-Orthodox rabbis demanded that their people attend Saif’s funeral.  They even said the El Maleh Rachamim prayer which in the Ultra Orthodox world is dedicated only to Jews.  In this case, they made an exception – Zidan is counted among the holy and the pure.  Ultra-Orthodox at a Muslim funeral, praying for a Muslim man? 

Things aren’t always what they seem

We saw people being attacked during a Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem, a teenage Jewish girl who died of these wounds, and a Palestinian baby being burned in her bed by Jewish terrorists.  What some choose not to see was the public outcry from left and especially from those on the right who condemned the terrorists and made no excuses for them!  They said, “this is not what Jews do!”  They condemned the attackers as terrorists. 

When Israel is called out for being the only nation in the entire world opposed to the Iran Nuclear Deal, and were accused of preferring bombing to diplomacy.  What some do not want to see is a mentality, an ideology, that Israel faces from Hamas, Hizbollah, and yes, the Ayatollahs of Iran – “You, Israelis and Jews, love life, while we are unafraid of death…this is your weakness.”  Israel hears ‘we are going to wipe you off the map’ and they listen – I know, it may sound crazy, but Israel takes their words seriously!  

What some fail to see, and what others do not see is that Choosing Life is actually our strength! 

Israel loves life, and it’s because they love life that they do the things they do.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg famously said, “If Israel was 5% more moral they would truly be a light onto the nations.  If they were 10% more moral, they would be dead.” 

This week, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khameini, sent out a tweet, yes, the Ayatollah has a Twitter account. 



His tweet read the following:  “Israel – you will not see the next 25 years, God willing, there will be nothing left of the Zionist regime in 25 years, secondly, until then, struggling heroic and Jihadi morale will leave no moment of serenity for the Zionists”

He added in a second Tweet, “U.S. is the great Satan” some insist on depicting this great Satan as an angel.”  He had more choice words – but you get the point. 

I’m not making this up – this is the message our negotiating partner sent to the world. 

The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism once commented on the words, “Inscribe us in the Book of Life.”  He says that we must understand this phrase in a spiritual sense – that we can write ourselves in the book of Life, and we can write ourselves in the book of Death. 

It’s a choice – and we choose life. 

We Jews are a critical people – we are always seeking to improve, and we realize that Israel is not perfect, that Israel at times, needs to do some soul searching, but, we all have to agree on one point, no matter where you stood this summer -Israel Chooses Life – Israel writes itself constantly in the book of life, whereas Hamas, Hizbollah, and their funder and spiritual guide Iran shows itself time and time again to write itself and others in the Book of Death.

Israel invests in future technologies to help heal the world – Iran actually has a terrorism budget to help destabilize and destroy the world. 

When we see these things coming from the Supreme leader of Iran, we must tell the world, in this case, things are as they seem – we worship and choose life, while they worship and choose death. 

This is why we will succeed, because we choose life, we write ourselves in the book of life, and we will do so in the coming year, and for years after.  

Today, on Rosh Hashanah, as we stand on a mountain looking at the new year, we have a choice, do we look back at division, or look forward, like Moshe wanted us to do when he stood on the mountain, and choose life, choose living together, choose a mission to bring healing to the world. 

May this be a year of peace, Shalom, but not just of peace, but of what Shalom really means – wholeness and unity. 

We must continue to use our secret weapon, to be a light unto the nations - Bacharta Ba’Chaim – Choose Life.


Becoming Whole: Jewish Unity in 5776© Rosh Hashanah Day 2 - Rabbi David Baum

Becoming Whole:  Jewish Unity in 5776©
Rosh Hashanah Day 2 - Rabbi David Baum
Congregation Shaarei Kodesh

Do you remember where you were last summer when you heard about the kidnapping of the three Jewish teens in Israel? 

I was at Camp Ramah Darom, surrounded by Jewish kids, of all ages.  I quickly came to a realization, they weren't Israeli boys, they weren’t Orthodox boys, they were our boys. 

Immediately after the boys were taken, the hashtag #BringBackOurBoys began and the whole Jewish world united.  After the news came to us, that all three boys had been murdered by Hamas terrorists, our hearts broke, but after all the heart break, we realized something:  WE NEED EACH OTHER TO BE MORE WHOLE.  We need this message now even more this year after the summer we had – the summer where we debated the Iran Nuclear Deal. 

Last year, there was a real battle, between Israel and Hamas.  Yossi Klein HaLevi, the famous Israeli writer and thinker said to us (hundreds of rabbis gathering together to study) with a sad face:  This summer, the battle wasn’t in Israel, it was here, in the U.S. on Capitol Hill, in our living rooms and dining rooms, in coffee shops, and of course, online on Facebook and Twitter, and even in our Batei Knesset as we discussed the Iran Nuclear Deal.  He said, for the first time, we were on the front lines in a debate for Israel’s future. 

Some in our Jewish community called each other names. 

The Jews who supported the deal were called kapos by some.  They were accused of helping to bring their fellow Jews to the slaughter.

The Jews who were against the deal were accused of dual loyalties – accused of treason against the United States of America.  They were called warmongers, and many received anti-Semitic taunts from non-Jews.

Those who stayed neutral – well, they were called cowards for not choosing a side, or, just plain stupid for not being able to understand the deal. 

Where do we go from here?

Thousands of years ago, there was a dispute between the academy of Shammai and the academy of Hillel where each side claimed victory:  “The law is according to our views.”  Suddenly, after three years of a gridlock, a force broke the stalemate:  the voice of God, the Bat Kol.  The voice of God states, “Elu V’ Elu Divrei Elohim Chaim.”  “Your words and your words are the words of the living God…”

What struck me were God’s words – those words AND those words, are the voice of the LIVING God.  God was telling them – it doesn’t matter what opinion you take, but if one of you is going to be right, then you must acknowledge that there is divinity inside the other, as crazy as it might sound in the heat of an argument, even an argument that you think has to do with the future of our lives.

If you called someone a kappo for supporting the deal, maybe you can see that they believed it was the best deal possible, that they believed they were fighting for our people.   

If you called someone a war monger or a traitor for opposing the deal, maybe you could see that they feel strongly that this deal is so bad that our allies must return to the negotiating table, that they believed they were fighting for our people. 

If you called someone a coward for staying neutral, perhaps they felt, what could I add to this debate except more fuel to the fire?  And they believed they were fighting for our people. 

When I think about this summer, I’m reminded of a famous midrash about the lulav and etrog.  The midrash starts off on an interesting note – the etrog has both flavor and smell - so there are Jews who have Torah, wisdom, and good deeds – so if you seemingly have it all, the “perfect Jew”, why add the rest?  The midrash goes on – the etrog must be surrounded by the lulav, the palm, has flavor, but no smell/fragrance, so too there are Jews have Torah, but don't act in the world - they keep it to themselves.  Then we have the Hadas - Myrtle – it has smell, but no flavor – so too there are Jews who act in this world, but don't study our tradition.  Then we have the Aravah - the willow – it has no smell, and no flavor - Maybe these are just Jews in name only.  The Midrash tells us that God binds them together, that there is no perfect Jew, not even the etrog – each Jew needs the other to be more whole.  We are all needed to build a brighter Jewish future. 

Last summer, when the three boys were taken hostage, the Jewish community, no matter how they labeled themselves, came together.  The body of the Jewish people came rose to the challenge. 

Rachel Fraenkel, said this about her ordeal last summer:  “People from all over were saying these are not just your boys, these are our children. Sometimes I ask myself was this just an illusion? I have this image of a person walking in the dark and its raining and they’re stumbling and theyre figuring out their way.  They dont see anything and then for a second theres lightning and in that lightning they see the reality of their surroundings. It helps them guide their way. We had days and days of lightning. Its no illusion what we saw there, ourselves. Were part of something huge. Were part of a people, of a true family thats for real.

This summer, we observed holidays where our people came apart, Tisha B’av, but a new holidays began this June - Unity Day, by the parents of these boys. 

On this day, Rachel Fraenkel stated, “We want unity, not uniformity”
We need each other, but we need each other be different so we can be whole. 

On that day, our people proudly stated that we are Am Echad – One Nation. 

Rosh Hashanah is also a day of unity - when we realize that we share the same heart, the same body, and the life force must flow to all parts of our body. 

Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the former chief rabbi of Israel and one of the youngest survivors of the notorious death camp Auschwitz, recently said standing in the very camp where he lost so many of his family and friends:  


(minute mark 12:14)
“This place – Auschwitz-Birkenau – is the largest cemetery on this earth. It proves that we know how to die together. There are no divisions between Sephardi and Ashkenazi, between secular and religious, between enlightened and ignorant, rich and poor. They were all killed as Jews. The time has come for us to leave here with a message that we also have to know how to live together. The secret of dying together is not enough. We have to find the secret of living together.”

Let’s remember these words not just on Unity Day, not just on Rosh Hashanah, not just during times when we all agree, but especially during the times we disagree, times like this summer.    

No matter what type of Jew you are, An Etrog, a Willow, a Myrtle, or a Lulav, we all share the same heart, and we need each other to be more whole.