Sermon from Kol Nidrei — October 8, 2019
It is striking that we initiate Yom Kippur with Kol Nidrei, a liturgical poem that both highlights the promises we make and alludes to the fact that we have an unfortunate tendency to break our vows. In so doing, Kol Nidrei draws our attention to the all-too-common disconnect between who we say we want to be and who we are, between the ideals we claim to uphold and the ones we end up living by, between what we promise to do and what we actually do.
And while Kol Nidrei undoubtedly has a personal dimension it is also at its heart a prayer about the vows we make as a people, and the vows we break as a people. Kol Nidrei is one of the few prayers we recite during Yom Kippur that is phrased in the first-person, and yet it is framed as a communal offering:
We call heaven and earth to witness tonight that we join together as a community to offer our prayers, “ בישיבה של מעלה ובישיבה של מטה, על דעת המקום ועל דעת הקהל, אנו מתירים להתפלל עם העברינים / By consent of the yeshiva above and the yeshiva below, with the consent of God and the consent of the congregation, we are hereby permitted to pray with the sinners.”
The promises about which we will speak are both our own, and those of others, both the blameless and the guilty, who join with us. Even if we are not ourselves guilty of the transgressions that will be enumerated, we ask that their sins be considered our sins, that our fates will be joined with theirs.
In these ways, Kol Nidrei underscores the biblical description of Yom Kippur, which states: “The entire congregation of the people Israel shall be forgiven, as well as the immigrant who dwells among them, for the whole nation is in error.” Yom Kippur is less about who we’ve been and what we’ve done as individuals, and more about who we’ve been and what we’ve done as a people, for good or ill. Where the community has erred, we implicate ourselves in their transgressions; and where the community has succeeded, we ask to be considered by their merits.
Yom Kippur is thus at least partially a day of communal accounting and atonement. On this day, we consider our collective successes and failures, and in which we seek, as a people, to strike a different course in the year to come.
And since on Kol Nidrei we compare and contrast who we as a people say we want to be and who we are, it is worth our taking some time to compare and contrast the promise and reality of the most significant Jewish communal project of our time: the establishment of the modern State of Israel.
Before I dive in, I want to offer a confession: I am afraid to give this sermon. I can’t remember the last time I spoke about Israel, but it’s been a minute. Among the reasons I rarely preach on this topic is that, sometimes, I have experienced that just saying the word “Israel” from the pulpit is fraught with danger. I get it. For many of us, Israel is extremely personal. It is for me, too. For as long as I can remember, Israel has been an inseparable part of my Jewish identity. I loved it before I made my first pilgrimage there as a teenager, and it has remained a significant part of my life ever since I first kissed the ground of the tarmac at the old Ben Gurion airport. I spent some of the best and most formative years of my life in Israel. Adira and I first met and fell for each other while living in Jerusalem. And there is little I love more as a rabbi than encountering Israel with my congregants, experiences I hope to share with many of you in the years to come.
So believe me — I understand that it’s human nature to be sensitive and even defensive about the things closest to our hearts. We are justifiably protective of what we love. But here’s the thing: I believe Israel is too important, too central to the Jewish soul, not to talk about it with each other openly and candidly.
Today, of all days, is a day for us to be honest with each other. On this Kol Nidrei eve, when we examine the gap between the promises we make and the promises we keep, we must honestly consider the promises made by the State of Israel and the condition of those promises, celebrating and encouraging Israel insofar as it has lived up to its ideals, and holding ourselves accountable where Israel has yet to live up to its promise.
What are the promises of Israel in the first place? This is a tricky question. From the very beginning, even before the First Zionist Congress 120 years ago, we have always held onto multiple Zionisms, numerous dreams of what a renewed Jewish homeland could be.
One common thread these visions shared was that the State of Israel would be a State of and for the Jewish people, an autonomous country where Jewish sovereignty, bolstered by its own defense forces, could secure our safety.
After two thousand years of precarious Diaspora, in which the Jewish people survived relentless assaults, unthinkable bloodshed, and widespread, often state-sponsored, massacre — a history that reached its horrifying zenith during the Shoah — the State of Israel promised a place of refuge and security for a people perpetually threatened with annihilation.
The State of Israel has lived up to this promise beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors. In this truth, there is much to be proud.
Immediately after its founding, the biblical prophecy of the ingathering of the exiles seemed to be on the verge of fulfillment before our very eyes: During the first three and a half years of the state’s existence, nearly 700,000 Jews immigrated to Israel, including thousands of Holocaust survivors.
In the 1950’s, Israel undertook special operations to bring entire Jewish communities perceived to be in serious danger in the Middle East and North Africa. These imperiled communities have all found refuge in the State of Israel.
I am old enough to remember Israel’s airlifts of thousands of Ethiopian Jews and its resettlement of Russian Jews in the 1980s and 1990s, and recall it as proof positive that the State of Israel could and would undertake massive expense and risk to live up to one of its primary founding promises: saving Jews, whoever they were, wherever they were, from persecution and danger. And this history and contemporary reality of Israel, as refuge for Jews anywhere and everywhere, makes Israel urgent to preserve and defend, especially in this era of rising authoritarianism, ethnic nationalism, and naked antisemitism.
In this sense, the State of Israel benefits Jews everywhere, even those of us who have remained in the Diaspora. I know that, if the tide were ever to turn against Jews, even in places like the United States where we are flourishing and comfortable, Israel will be our shelter and fortress.
Yes, there are serious divisions between Diaspora and Israeli Jews. And sometimes Israel actively denigrates the status of Diaspora Jews. But it is also true that Jewish sovereignty in Israel has elevated the status of Jews everywhere. Thanks to the Law of Return, we Diaspora Jews are at least theoretically part of the sovereign nation even while not living there, no different than nationals of other countries who, for various reasons, live abroad.
Additionally, Israel has been empowering for Jews worldwide from a cultural standpoint. Its output has strengthened our connections to the language of our people (a language that was all but extinct before the advent of Zionism) and the sacred texts of our tradition. Israel’s world-class Hebrew-language music, literature, theater, and cinema are inspiring. Its religious innovations provide guidance and inspiration for congregations and individual practitioners everywhere. In ways that you may or may not fully recognize, and even if you’ve never set foot in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, the State of Israel has enriched and elevated both your Jewish life and your life as a Jewish person living in the Diaspora.
At the same time, Israel has always promised to be more than merely a state of and for the Jews. Israel has also always promised to be a Jewish state. Of course, the definition of the term “Jewish state” has been the subject of debate and even controversy since the early days of Zionism. I cannot claim to offer the definitive understanding. But I can tell you what it means to me: A Jewish state is more than just a country with a majority Jewish population, where Jewish people exercise sovereignty and defend themselves with an army comprised mostly of fellow Jews.
In addition to that, a Jewish state is a country that has an intrinsically Jewish character at its core, in which the dominant cultural context is unmistakably Jewish, and where the highest ideals of the Jewish tradition — like the fundamental Jewish belief that all human beings are created in the Divine image — guide its policies and practices. In this sense, the Jewishness of Israel is less about its demographics than it is about the values it upholds and the way it acts. This, I believe, is the definition expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, that central to the Jewish character of the state is that would be “based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.”
From a certain point of view, Israel has beautifully fulfilled this promise. You can see it on Israeli TV in the early fall, when businesses of all kinds advertise their New Year’s sales and wish viewers a “Shanah Tovah,” or in the summer, when Israelis of all walks of life compete on “Master Chef: Israel” by taking diverse Jewish culinary traditions and making them modern and gourmet.
You can imbibe it in the wine, as a new generation of Israeli vintners, in the land where wine was practically invented, strive to build a modern world-class wine industry inspired by Jewish text, tradition, and law. You can feel it when the flow of the week follows the rhythms leading up to and away from Shabbat, and when the pattern of the calendar is punctuated by Jewish sacred observance. You can hear it and read it, when the ancient language of the Torah and the Mishnah, with all of its complex intertexual meanings, is the language of the street, the market, the newspaper, the novel, the theater, and the music.
Equally if not more importantly, Israel fulfills its promise to be a truly Jewish state through its extraordinary humanitarian efforts. Just a few weeks ago, Israel was among the very first countries to send personnel, supplies, and resources to the Bahamas following the devastation of Hurricane Dorian. And a couple years ago, I had the privilege of visiting Tzfat’s Ziv Medical Center, where Israeli doctors have treated dozens of victims of the Syrian civil war, despite Syria’s history of hostility toward Israel. Israel does things like this not simply because they are nice or because they bolster her public image. Rather, it comes to the aid of disaster-stricken countries, especially poor, disaster-stricken countries, because it recognizes that alleviating suffering is what Judaism is all about, and so it is simply what a truly Jewish state does.
But this dimension of Israel’s promise to be a truly Jewish state is also where its record is much more checkered. Recall that, in the Declaration of Independence, Israel’s founders promised that the Jewish state would “be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.” The Declaration goes on to explain that in order to live up to these values, the Jewish state must “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex,” as well as “guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”
In many respects, Israel’s commitment to fulfill this promise indeed makes it “a light unto the nations.” Its welfare system is one of the most robust in the world, and despite its high rates of economic inequality and poverty, Israel strives to fulfill the biblical command that “there shall be no needy among you.” Its democratic institutions are robust and the rule of law generally prevails.
Within its sovereign borders, Israel’s citizens do possess equal political rights, irrespective of ethnicity, religion, race, or sex. And while Israeli society, like many others, continues to struggle with religious equality, including the equal treatment of different Jewish denominations, as well as misogyny, homophobia, and racism, women, LGBTQ Israelis, and ethnic and religious minorities all possess freedom and equality that is unparalleled in the region. For these reasons and more, Israel has lived up to its promise to be a truly Jewish state, and it makes me — as it should make all of us, I think — very, very proud.
Unfortunately, however, this is not the whole story. Because even as we celebrate the ways that Israel fulfills its promise to be a state infused with Jewish character and guided by Jewish values, we also must contend with the fact that, for over 50 years, Israel has denied millions of Palestinians under its dominion their own right to national self-determination. The military occupation that Israel has imposed on the Palestinian people since the end of the Six Day War denies them equal rights, freedom of movement, land, and economic opportunity.
In the context of this occupation, Israel has been repeatedly and credibly accused of violating Palestinian human rights and international laws, all while it continues to allow and in some cases encourage the settlement of its own population in the disputed territory, sometimes confiscating land from Palestinians and even bulldozing entire neighborhoods to accommodate settlers, and in the process undercutting the viability of a future independent state.
I am well aware that some of you may be upset by what I just said. Believe me, it also makes me angry, as well as sad — and scared. Because I love Israel, because I believe so much in the promise of Israel, and because of how important Israel is to me personally and to the Jewish community collectively, the occupation breaks my heart. But it’s also because I love Israel and because I care for its future that I feel this must be said, as honestly and as urgently as possible.
I also know that some of us object to the mere use of the “O” word. But today is a day for honesty. And the truth is that there is near universal consensus, from the international community to the Israeli Supreme Court to the IDF itself, that the proper term to describe the status quo in the West Bank and Gaza is “occupation.” That’s what it’s called when territory is captured and neither annexed nor returned.
When the civilian population in that territory is ruled by the capturing country’s military, it is accurate to describe their condition as living under occupation. And when an occupying power permits or incentivizes its citizens to settle in occupied territory, it is violating international law.
It is of course a fact that Palestinians have blood on their hands. I came of age during the Second Intifada, when a horrific wave of Palestinian terror killed hundreds of Israeli civilians. And I lived in Israel after the disengagement from Gaza, when Israel unilaterally uprooted its settlements in the Strip, and Palestinian militants began unleashing barrages of rocket attacks on civilian populations, a brutal campaign that continues to this day. Stand atop the Azrieli Tower in Tel Aviv on a clear day. You can see the vast majority of Israel’s population with the naked eye. And you will quickly realize that this population of millions is easily within range of rocket fire from the West Bank. Thank God, Israel’s military today is a force to be reckoned with. But no nation, however mighty, is invincible. And Israel must be permitted to defend itself, otherwise it will, God-forbid, cease to exist.
But Israel’s legitimate security concerns do not justify endless occupation. Indeed, many experts, including among them prominent Israeli military leaders, argue that endless occupation threatens Israel’s long-term security. Some even say that our failure to end the occupation and work toward a two-state solution with the Palestinians poses an existential threat to Israel’s very survival.
And endless occupation also poses an existential moral threat to Israel. It renders us incapable of existing in accordance with the values of “freedom, justice and peace” as envisaged by our Torah and our tradition. Our Torah and our tradition insist that every human being is created equally in the Divine image, but occupation is so often by its very nature demeaning and dehumanizing. Our Torah and our tradition demand we have “one law,” but occupation dictates two unequal systems for two unequal peoples. Our Torah and our tradition insist that we not do unto others what would be hateful to us — and yet through occupation Israel imposes upon innocent Palestinians hardship, indignity, and even cruelty that we ourselves would rightly find intolerable.
Ultimately, our right to safeguard our own national liberation cannot forever come at the expense of another people’s national liberation. Preserving and defending a sovereign democracy on one side of a border cannot forever come with the price tag of denying freedom, equality, and self-determination on the other side of that border. It is an unsustainable status quo, both on pragmatic and moral grounds.
So, while we should not expect Israel to break its promise of being a state for the Jews in order to preserve its identity as a Jewish State, a state rooted in and committed to the highest ideals of our tradition, we also must demand that Israel not break its promise to be a truly Jewish state in order to secure a state for the Jews. For Israel to remain Israel, for Israel to live up to its promise, it must be both things.
I don’t presume to have all the answers on how Israel should end the occupation, make peace with the Palestinians, and enable them to have a state of their own. I fully recognize all the political and practical obstacles Israel faces in doing those things. And in any event, the logistics of how and when Israel can and should do this ought properly to be the purview of the military experts, policy-makers, and diplomats.
But to insist that Israel lives up to its highest values, that it reflects the moral vision of our scripture, our prophets, and our sages, a vision that demands we emulate a God of kindness and compassion by acting with kindness and compassion, a vision that holds human dignity and equality as foundational — to insist that our Jewish state can and must embody that vision — even and especially when it is hard to do — that is our collective communal responsibility. Because whether we live in Richmond or Rechavia, the State of Israel is our shared obligation and destiny.
Kol Nidrei draws our attention to the promises we make, and forces us to confront the disconnect between who we say we want to be and who we are. As we began our service, we alluded to the ישיבה של מעלה וישיבה של מטה .
Note that the word we used is ישיבה, which commonly refers to a house of learning, and not בית דין, a court of justice. Tonight, we do not convene a court to put ourselves and each other on trial for our failings. Rather, we create a ישיבה, a place of study and sacred conversation.
Typically, yeshiva students would gather with a passage of Torah or a page of Talmud between them, analyzing and debating its meaning and implications, striving to arrive at a deeper understanding and to acquire sacred wisdom.
On Yom Kippur, we do that, too. Except the text is not the Torah or the Talmud. The text is each and all of us. The text is our lives. The text is the book written by our deeds as individuals, and our actions as a community. We gather tonight to open the book of our lives and study it together. We convene a conversation, not a judgment, about the promises we’ve kept, the promises we’ve broken, and how to best chart a pathway forward, as individuals and as a community. The State of Israel is a promise that our ancestors made to us, and that we make to each other and to our descendants after us. And this day calls us to study, discuss, and even engage in holy debate, about the condition of that promise.
We needn’t agree — the best yeshivas are filled with disagreement, as is Israel itself, from the Knesset down to the corner market. And Zionism, in the words of my dear friend Rabbi Abe Friedman, “has always been better off in times of constructive disagreement and fertile conflict.”
But we must not abandon the conversation. In that spirit, I invite you to participate in the programs of our new SHALOM Israel RVA initiative, opportunities for serious, honest, and accessible learning and discussion about Israel. Through illuminating classes, thought-provoking lectures, dynamic dialogue, and a boisterous book club, we will together explore all aspects of the promise and reality of modern Israel, engaging in the kind of robust learning and healthy disagreement that is at the heart of Zionism and represents the very best of our tradition.
Whether you avail yourself of those experiences or you participate in others, I ask that, beginning tonight, and in the year to come, we do not forsake the promises of Israel by abandoning the conversation about the condition of those promises. Israel looms too large in our history, is too vital to our present, and is too entwined in our destiny for us to stop talking with each other about it, even and especially when we disagree.
For two thousand years, our people hoped against all odds to once again be a free people in its homeland. Over the last century, that hope has turned into an imperfectly fulfilled promise.
It is on us today not to abandon that hope, and to ensure the promise is fulfilled.
Ken Yehi Ratzon, so may it be God’s will.