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Maurice A. Salth
Engaging with Israel (Parashat Ki Tisa)

Maurice A. Salth  |  March 9, 2012

When people enter my office, they often see this picture on my wall and they ask me,  “Oh, who’s that a picture of?” And I say,  “Um, it’s Queen Esther. And it’s Batman in the background.”  Because I don’t actually know who these kids are. I took a picture of them when I was in Mahane Yehuda, the open market in Jerusalem, twelve years ago when I was a rabbinical student.  And as Rabbi Rubinstein mentioned, this week the Jewish people celebrated Purim here in a celebration that was one for the ages.

But this year’s holiday fell during a time when we read of disturbing news for the country of Israel, where this picture of course was taken: news about the concern of Iran obtaining the capacity to build a nuclear weapon to threaten Israel and others in our world.  Those of us that have been following this story are aware of how serious such a threat is.  There is much to talk about this issue—too much to address tonight in full—but I’d like to share a few reflections on this important matter.

First of all I’m just curious, how many of us in this congregation have been fortunate to go to Israel? I know some of us were born in Israel. Let’s take a look at this group around us. And I know there are some of us that might be leaving in the next year—how many of us are expecting to go to Israel in the next year—just curious?  Some of you I know are leaving in the next few weeks.

Well I’m so glad to see that because first among everything I want to encourage us to be engaged in what’s going on in Israel on a regular basis and not just when challenges like the one with Iran arise.  Israel’s such a rich and wonderful nation with so much to be proud of and so much to be connected to.

That’s why here at Central Synagogue, Israel’s integrated throughout our education programs, for children and adults. Our synagogue is organizing two trips which are going to be embarking to Israel within the next nine months and our members are travelling there all the time.  I saw an itinerary from a family that’s leaving in the next couple of weeks and I brought it in to share it with my colleagues and we were salivating at their opportunity—wish we had it—to visit the historic sites and the modern wonders of Israel.

And of course we can partake in Israel without even leaving New York City, whether it’s watching some of their Oscar-nominated films, or hearing the words of President Shimon Peres, who was visiting in New York recently on the Upper East Side. And I can go on and on about how we can do this in New York, but clearly we all know we can.

It is a mistake in my opinion to only check in with Israel when challenges strike because it limits us from knowing Israel comprehensively. And it robs us of the full story that is happening with our brothers and our sisters there.

Now secondly with regard to Iran, I believe we and our government should be supporting the strictest of sanctions possible.  And also communicate, as President Obama did this week, that the United States is willing to use military force to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons.  To his credit, President Obama noted that Iran is not a threat only to Israel: it is a threat to the entire world.

And lastly, at least for tonight, there is a lesson to be taken from our portion, Ki Tisa, from which is related to how the Israelites react when Moses is up on Mount Sinai.  He’s there for forty days.  And the Israelites, newly freed—they panic. And rumors spread.  And the rumor is that Moses is dead.  He’s never coming back.  And even Aaron, Moses’ brother and the newly selected high priest, fails in his leadership responsibilities.  And it’s in this week’s portion that the golden calf is built.

In the section that Rabbi Friedman is about to read, which takes place right after the calf is built and Moses has come down from the Mountain, he confronts Aaron and Aaron panics again and fails to take responsibility to Moses for his action.  Instead he blames the Israelites and he tells Moses that the golden calf just popped out.  This was not helpful to anyone.

The narrative of panic is not one we want repeated in our modern day. And we should all work hard to encourage our government to make the right decisions to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and pray that our government and that of Israel does everything in their power to make thoughtful decisions and take appropriate actions based on the intelligence they have.

Because in the end, our job is to pray and to work for peace so that this Queen Esther and this Batman and the teenagers and all the people in Israel and the teenagers in our front row and all of us in our country and throughout the world all have the opportunity to live in a world that exists without the threat of war.

This is the ultimate goal that we have as Jews: to love peace and to pursue it.

Dear God, give us the strength to bring peace to our world.

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