Parshat Behar/Behukotai Saturday Morning 2012

Parshat Behar/Behukotai
Saturday Morning
1.      Shabbat Shalom
2.      Sunday is Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day. Sunday is the day we celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem after more than 2000 years of exile. It was on this day, in 1967 that Israeli soldiers, during the Six Day War, fought hand to hand in the streets of Jerusalem and captured the old city from Jordan. It has been Israel’s undivided capital ever since.
3.      I think that we should remember the difficult history of this city. Jerusalem was burned by the Romans in 70 CE and the Jews of the city were carried off into captivity.  In 135 CE, there was another revolt that was completely crushed by the Roman Emperor Hadrian. From that time, Jews were forbidden to neither set foot in Jerusalem nor rebuild it. Jews were finally able to return to the city by the Moslem general Saladin. They kept to their own quarter of the city and lived in relative poverty. Jews all over the world sent money to aid those who lived in the city but only in the time of Turkish rule, did the Baron Rothschild and other great Jewish philanthropists of Europe send money to build the neighborhoods outside the walls of the city.  Jerusalem now had two parts, the old city built by the Moslems and the new city that was being constantly built by the Jews under Turkish and then British rule.
4.      In 1948, the Jewish defenders of Jerusalem barely were able to hold on to the new city, suffering a terrible siege. They tried to also hang on to the old city but could not breach the walls. From 1948 until 1967 Jerusalem was a city divided. On Sunday we will celebrate its becoming one city again.
5.      There was a recent dialogue between two modern thinkers about the State of Israel. One of the participants was Peter Beinart. He is the author of a recent book called “The Crisis of Zionism”, a controversial book about how Israel’s government has corrupted the notion of Zionism. He was debating Zionism with Rabbi David Gordis, a rather outspoken Conservative Rabbi who lives and writes in Israel about politics there. Rabbi Gordis is a friend of mine; we graduated Rabbinical School together, long before he made aliyah to Israel.  After the debate, there was time for some questions. One of the questioners asked: “Both of you have written about the tragedy of young American Jews who have no connection to Judaism and the fate of the Jewish state. So let’s say you were stuck in an elevator with one of the people from that demographic, and you had two minutes to sell them about why they should re-engage with Jewishness and Zionism and the Jewish people, what would you say?”
6.      Before I give their answers let me just explain that this is not a trick question. In this age of Facebook and Twitter, young people today don’t like to read long articles of well-reasoned opinions. They like short answers and condensed ideas. Twitter requires that all messages be reduced to just 130 characters. An elevator speech is where you try to boil down your entire philosophy into the time it takes to ride an elevator to an upper floor. You get only two minutes. The questioner was asking how these two writers would engage a young person with only two minutes to engage them.
7.      While their answer are longer than I can use here today, let me just say that Rabbi Gordis replied, “The question itself is an outrageously obnoxious question. … I wouldn’t take two minutes while standing in an elevator to try and explain everything that makes my world meaningful or to try to convince somebody to be a moral human being, and I wouldn’t take two minutes in an elevator to try to convince another person why a life spent loving another person is a life that … is infinitely worthwhile. … There are certain conversations that don’t deserve two minutes; they deserve years of upbringing.”
8.      Peter Beinart then said, “I could not more profoundly agree with what he said… It’s too late at that point, and the kids who ask that question have in fact been failed by our community.”  Then he noted the failure of our Jewish schools and added, “That’s precisely why we end up with kids who would ask such an insulting question in the elevator.”
9.      While both of these authors disagree on many topics relating to Israel, here was one where they could both agree. They have both written many books about the problems of life in Israel, the issues that Israel has to face and the failure of Israeli politicians to solve these problems; that to summarize their entire world view into a two minute speech was really asking them too much. Short of asking the person in the elevator to buy and read their books, how could anyone expect them to summarize their life’s work in a two minute conversation?
10.  A number of people walked away from that exchange surprised and unhappy with their pessimistic view of young Jews. Both seemed to make the case that the next generation of American Jews will be a lost generation. They will have little connection to their religion, little connection to Israel and no feelings at all for the history of Israel that we in this room witnessed in our lives. They lay that blame on our shoulders, that we did not do enough to pay for the schools nor provide for the education and the indoctrination of a generation of Jews to love Israel and the Jewish people.
11.  Let me first say that while I have had my issues with both Rabbi Gordis and Peter Beinart, in this case, I believe, along with several others who have commented on this exchange, that they are both wrong.  If there is a lost generation it could only be if we give up on our efforts to reach them. It does not take a long time to change a mind. It does not take a lifetime of education to form an opinion. It is true that you can’t teach all there is to know about Judaism and Israel while standing on one foot, but you can spark an interest that could trigger a lifetime of Jewish learning.
12.  The odds are that you will not win the lottery in your lifetime.  The odds of winning are very long odds indeed. But if you never buy a lottery ticket, you will certainly never win. Similarly, if young Jews today are not connected with Israel while they are in school, then it will be hard to connect them once they are out in the world. But if we give up on them, they certainly will never connect with Israel, or worse, will come to believe that those detractors of Israel are right and that Israel is just another failed state. I am not prepared to cede that ground to the Palestinians, the anti-Semites or any of the other groups that would like to see Israel destroyed.
13.  Before I give you my elevator speech, however, let me ask you to think about this for a while. What would you say in the elevator to a young Jew asking why you think Judaism and Israel are important, so important that this person should rethink their own position? What do you consider a compelling answer? Would you talk about our ancient connection to the faith and land of our ancestors? Do you think that remembering the Holocaust is the most compelling argument? If you have been to Israel, could you find something from your visit that makes Israel worth advocating for in the public square? What could you say to your grandchildren that would help them understand the love you have for Israel?
14.   If I were asked the question about why a young Jew should rethink a position on Israel, I might first ask why it is that every ethnic group, every religious group in the world has a nation to call home. Why should Jews be denied their home? No matter what the ethnicity, Jews have never been fully welcome, fully at home anywhere. Now that we have a state of our own, why should anyone ask us to give it back? Until the Jews came the land of Israel was barren and full of disease; Jews have pushed back the desert and made the country a great success. Why did they do it? Because that is what you do when you are home.
15.  I might also remind this young Jew that while democracy is sometimes a messy way to run a country, it is still the best government that can be found in the Middle East. Israel had protests in the streets just as Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria. But Israel did not repress its demonstrators. They had the right to protest and now they are working to make the country better, without fighting, gun battles and foreign intervention.
16.  I would also add that in many cases, the reason that so many oppose Israel is because, even in the 21stcentury, there are still nations and people who don’t like to see Jews be successful. They see Israel as a country that defies their view of the place Jews should be in the world, that we don’t fit their theology nor their world view. Maybe not in the United States, but when Jews were attacked in Argentina, Ethiopia, Russia and France, unlike in 1948, these Jews have a place to go, a place that will take them in without questions. Israel has also taken in other refugees when nobody else would take them. Ask me why there are so many Southeast Asians in Israel? When no other country would have them, Israeli ships picked them up at sea and brought them to Israel. And when disaster strikes anywhere in the world, one of the first countries to send humanitarian aid is Israel.
17.  If you have never been to Israel, you should and see for yourself how minorities are treated, how other faiths are respected and how the country is run by the rule of law. I would tell you to visit the other countries in the area but most of them are too dangerous for foreigners to visit.  And yet they want to take over our Jewish State.
18.  Is Israel perfect? Not hardly, but it is only 60 years old or so, and already it has picked itself up from a third world country to a first world country.  I think that anyone who is unhappy with what Israel is about should take another look. Next time you hear someone talking down about Israel, ask yourself if he or she has an ax to grind.  Israel is the land that all Jews can call home. It can be your home too. So stop by and see for yourself if Israel makes you proud.
19.  As we celebrate Yom Yershalayim this Sunday, let us all be proud, of a reunified Jerusalem and of a strong state of Israel. May God make her better and stronger as every year goes by as we say…
Amen and Shabbat Shalom

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