Angela W. Buchdahl | September 29, 2017
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A boy came home from Hebrew School and his mother asked,
“What did you learn today?”
“I learned that we were slaves in Egypt Mom,” the boy replied.
“And Pharaoh wouldn’t let us go free. But then Moses freed us with some sick plagues and led us to the Red Sea, where we got trapped by the Egyptian army.
Suddenly, a bunch of fighter jets appeared in the sky, and each plane air-dropped a wooden pontoon with a parachute, which lined up to form a bridge, and we walked over the pontoon bridge to freedom. Then just as the Egyptians tried to follow us, the bridge suddenly sank and drowned them all.
It was awesome.”
“Is that really what they taught you in Hebrew school?” his mother asked incredulously.
“Well, not exactly. But if I told you what they told ME, you would never believe it.”
The stories in the Torah sometimes seem too miraculous to believe.
And I will confess that the historical record suggests that the Exodus story might not be true—in terms of happening exactly as described in the Torah.
But our redemption story is nevertheless True, with a capital T, because this story is still happening. Miraculous stories of Redemption continue to occur for the Jewish people.
50 years ago this summer, our people experienced a redemption story no less miraculous than crossing the Red Sea. In June of 1967, Israel prevailed in what is also called The Six Day War.
How many of you in this room can remember that summer of ‘67?
I am too young to have experienced the power of this unlikely victory in real time, but have been gripped by the drama. I can’t do the whole story justice here, but it is worth recalling some of the highlights.
In the spring of 1967, President Nasser of Egypt amassed tens of thousands of troops along Israel’s western border. Syrian troops gathered on Israel’s border to the north.
Nasser forced out the UN Peacekeeping force that had been policing the Sinai Peninsula, and shut down the Straits of Tiran, blocking Israel’s only southern port.
Six Arab armies prepared for war.
Nasser boasted: “If war comes it will be total, and the objective will be Israel’s destruction.”
President Aref of Iraq chimed in that the Arab League’s goal was “to wipe Israel off the face of the map.”
These chilling words and acts caused a near panic among Israelis, who dug defensive trenches as well as 10,000 graves in anticipation of war. Israeli schools were repurposed as bomb shelters, with daily air raid practices.
Israel’s historical allies provided no support.
France refused to supply weapons.
President Lyndon B. Johnson was sympathetic, but unwilling to provide any military aid.
Meanwhile, the Soviets aligned with the united Arab states.
Yitzhak Rabin, then the Israeli Army’s Chief of Staff, told his generals that
“It’s about time we realized that nobody is going to come to our rescue.”
Just two decades after the Holocaust, Israel found itself utterly alone.
But on June 5, without warning, Israel launched all but 12 of its 250 fighter planes on a high-risk pre-emptive strike against the Egyptian Air force. In a story more miraculous than the one the little boy told his mother about redemption at the Red Sea, Israeli jets swooped in over Egypt,
below the radar and in total radio silence, caught the Egyptian planes defenseless on the ground,
and within four hours destroyed what had been the strongest airforce in the Arab world.
Israel’s ground troops prevailed in the north and west, and Israeli paratroopers miraculously battled their way into the old city of Jerusalem. For the first time in 2000 years—2000 years—the Temple Mount and its Western Wall were back in Jewish control.
This little country had vanquished multiple enemies all by itself,
in just six days.
Israel and the worldwide Jewish community responded with relief, and pride, and even messianic fervor: our people had escaped annihilation into redemption. And in the course of the war, Israel had recaptured Hebron, Jericho, and above all, Jerusalem-the holy places of our Biblical past. The military triumph fundamentally changed not only the Israeli map, but the very Jewish nature of the State: Israel became a religious center where Jews could walk, once again, in the footsteps of our ancestors. And in time, Israel’s victory led to peace treaties with both Egypt and Jordan, and provided the foundation for a strategic alliance with the US.
But on the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War last summer, the headlines did not highlight Israel’s historic triumph and survival. The news focused mainly on decades of Occupation, on missed opportunities and the grim pessimistic state of the peace process today. While we Jews rightly take enormous pride in the Six Day War, there is no denying that its legacy has been fraught with controversy, and that in the ensuing decades, disapproval of Israel has spiked to alarming levels, even among young Jews. A Pew Study conducted in 2013 showed that 74 percent of Jewish Millennials feel that Israel is not making a sincere effort toward peace. Of course, 1967 is by no means the beginning of the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East. But 1967 was a significant turning point, and it’s worth trying to understand where we are, 50 years later.
This summer, for the first time, I crossed the Green Line, to witness the post-’67 landscape for myself. I visited Israeli settlements in the Gush Etzion bloc, and then I joined a group of Jewish leaders on an Encounter trip where we met with Palestinian leaders in the West Bank.
We were asked to engage in “resilient listening,” which meant listening to stories without trying to argue or persuade—not an easy things for Jews—
but listening simply in order better to understand the other side.
Listening even when I fundamentally disagreed;
listening even when it was painful to hear.
Let’s just say: I got a lot of practice in resilient listening.
And on Yom Kippur, I invite you to do the same as I share a few snapshots.
In the West Bank settlement of Efrat, a Jewish settler named Danny gave me a tour of his bucolic community. He explained how his family felt called to return to the land of our Biblical ancestors—how he is part of making history. But it has come with a terrible price: in 2014, Danny’s business partner’s son was one of three teenagers kidnapped from a bus stop in Gush Etzion and later found murdered—an event that helped ignite the war in Gaza that summer. Nevertheless, he also made a point of telling me that his family knows many Palestinians in nearby villages and shops at the supermarket in town where Jews and Palestinians are in regular contact and coexist, most days, in peace.
Several days later, I looked up at Danny’s settlement from below—from the dilapidated Palestinian village of Khalet Zacharia. The stench of sewage was unmistakable. Abu Ibrahim, the head of the village council, explained how the Israeli government’s repeated denial of a building permit meant that for five years, the Palestinian children of this village went without schooling. Finally, the villagers put up an illegal trailer, insisting that their children have a place to learn. The Israeli government constantly threatens to demolish it, just as it has demolished other un-permitted structures all over the West Bank. Looming above, it was impossible to ignore the beautiful, eagle-shaped stone facade of the Gush Etzion Yeshiva high up on the hill.
Up on another hilltop, I met with Jonathan, a Jewish educator. “I chose Efrat for the great quality of life,” he said, and so have his children, who moved back to Efrat along with their children.
Efrat has new construction everywhere, most of it built by neighboring Palestinians.
When Jonathan moved there thirty years ago Efrat had 150 families.
Today this ‘little outpost’ is home to 15,000 Israeli Jews.
In the Gush Etzion bloc, every hilltop is a growing Jewish settlement, with Palestinian villages in all the valleys in-between. We drove on a road that was literally Jewish on one side and Palestinian on the other, only yards apart but they looked like they belonged in different centuries. It became clear how these settlements have become increasingly impossible to defend. Stabbings, bus bombings and car ramming of innocent civilians by Palestinian terrorists had been far too common since the first intifada, and after the second intifada, Israel erected a barrier wall, over 400 miles long, that has greatly reduced the loss of Israeli lives.
I spoke with Sam, an American-born Palestinian who has become a successful businessman in Ramallah. Sam is educated, wealthy and connected, but lives in what he describes as an “open air cage, surrounded by fences, walls, checkpoints, military installations.” He explained that, because of the barrier wall, when he needs to travel to Jerusalem, he must go around several towns, through 3 separate checkpoints, making a 20 minute drive a 2 hour trip.
He is not allowed to drive his family to the beach.
I visited the Aida Palestinian refugee camp, now a crowded city. There are families who have lived here for 3 generations, and some of the most radicalized Palestinians are raised in the desperation of these camps. I met Abdelfatteh, a highly-educated Palestinian who was born in this refugee camp and educated abroad, yet returned to run a community center for youth, teaching non-violence as an alternative.
He told me, “No one is born with genes of hate and violence.
No one is.
We need to give a reason for our kids to live for Palestine, not die for it.”
At the same time, however, the camp is peppered with monuments and graffiti that glorify Palestinians terrorists.
My head was spinning as I went from hilltop to valley, and valley to hilltop.
From one narrative to another.
Yossi Klein Halevi, a scholar at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, explains that Jewish history speaks of two biblical commands to remember.
The first commands us to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Its message is: “We were oppressed; so do not then become the oppressors.”
The second commands us to remember how the tribe of Amalek launched a surprise attack on us in the desert. Its message is: “Don’t be naive;
enemies of Israel could sneak up on us at any moment, and they want us dead.”
Most of us elevate one of these commands over the other, and this distinction encapsulates a fundamental divide over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A Jew motivated primarily by our memory of being the oppressed will be most attuned to how Israel, a powerful sovereign state, has placed millions of people under military rule—not temporarily, but for fifty years. They will focus on how Israel’s government, regardless of its justifications has restricted movement, created inequitable schools, neglected infrastructure and demolished buildings.
For a Jew who believes the fundamental Jewish command is
“Remember—we were the Oppressed,”
Israel’s behavior feels like a betrayal of core Jewish values.
Let’s call these Jews Zachor Jews, for the Biblical command to Remember.
But a Jew motivated primarily by memories of Amalek in all its forms—
from the Inquisition to the Holocaust—is most attuned to the very real threats to Jewish survival
that stubbornly resurface in every generation. These are not just the scars of past trauma, but continued threats from Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas who openly call for the destruction of the sole Jewish State on earth. They see the singular censure from the UN when so many other nations have far more egregious human rights violations. They see UNESCO’s failure to acknowledge the historical Jewish claim to the Temple Mount. They see the continued rocket fire from Gaza after withdrawing in 2005 in an effort to broker peace. They see the killing of three Israeli security officers just this week, by a Palestinian terrorist in Jerusalem.
For a Jew whose memory is most attuned to the constant threat to our survival—
the command “Don’t be naive”
more than justifies Israel’s actions in preserving lives.
Let’s call these Jews Shamor Jews, from the Biblical command to Guard.
Zachor Jews, first and foremost, Remember.
Shamor Jews, first and foremost, Protect.
Which are you?
Most of us, consciously or not, can’t help but preference one or the other.
Unfortunately, that choice becomes a lens that colors everything we see.
Whichever lens we wear, it is all too easy to marshal only those facts that support what we believe and turn a blind eye to anything that shakes our certainty.
And it is increasingly common, around the Israel conversation, for Jews to label each other: not just as right or left,
hawk or dove—
but as the enemy.
These disagreements go beyond the philosophical; each side believes that the other side threatens Israel’s very existence. It pains me to see how Jews are blacklisting and maligning each other.
And often, afraid of being shamed, afraid to offend,
too many of us choose to remain silent, to pull away.
We cannot turn our backs on Israel.
And we must not turn our backs on each other.
Instead, we must make room for both the Zachor and Shamor Jews as among ohavei Yisrael—
as lovers of Israel. I am more convinced than ever that if we truly want to engage in the sovereign project of Israel, we cannot look at Israel through the historical lens of Zachor or Shamor alone—we must wrestle with both.
Our ancient Rabbis confronted this tension long ago.
In Exodus, in the first recitation of the 10 Commandments,
God commands Israel to Keep the Sabbath, saying: “Shamor et Hashabbat”—
“Protect” the Sabbath.
But later, in Deuteronomy,
the biblical text of the commandment is Zachor et Hashabbat.
“Remember” the Sabbath.
How can one of the 10 Commandments,
the words of our Holy God,
literally etched in stone, use different words in these two retellings?
The Talmud resolved the inconsistency with an inspired poetic fix:
Shamor V’zachor b’dibur echad.
Meaning: God said “Protect” and “Remember,” simultaneously,
as a single utterance.
We learn from this that Shamor and Zachor are inseparable ideas.
We are instructed not to choose between them, but to unite them as a single idea.
Just as with Shabbat, if we want to truly keep Israel, we must Remember AND Protect Israel.
We need both.
It is not easy, but our community is practiced in holding multiple truths.
The exercise of engaging in “disagreements for the sake of heaven” is deeply prized in our Jewish tradition. The Talmud teaches us that the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai were in a heated argument that lasted for 3 years. At long last, a heavenly voice makes a ruling in favor of Hillel, but the voice says; Eilu v’Eilu—
“both these and those,” the words of Hillel and the words of Shammai,
are the words of the living God.
But tradition says that the reason we follow Hillel, and not Shammai, is that the students of Hillel always made a point of hearing the contrary positions of Shammai before stating their own. Sounds like some resilient listening. Even when we disagree, listening to our adversaries, can lead us toward truth.
Jonathan Haidt, author of “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” is a leading scholar of moral psychology and fortunately—a Central congregant.
As I prepared for this sermon, he shared: “The more passionate and angry we are, the more we need each other, because we are blinder than we think. We live in a world of outrage where all conflicts are getting hotter and more divisive. But if you engage in a back and forth, with some humility, then you can make progress towards truth.”
Imagine if we Jews could model this kind of
“disagreement for the sake of heaven” today regarding Israel?
What would it look like to truly hear and say aloud a contrary position before stating our own?
I know from personal experience it is easier said than done.
This summer as I engaged in resilient listening and truly faced the suffering, the frustration and the injustices of this conflict, I felt defensive, and deeply destabilized.
It’s not that I didn’t already know the facts, but it was all too easy to defer blame back on the Palestinians leadership—who exploit these conditions for political leverage, repeatedly reject Israeli peace proposals, and provide support to terrorists in their midst. But the absence of a credible Palestinian partner for peace cannot be used as an excuse to permit human suffering to continue under our rule.
Working to alleviate that misery is a moral imperative, regardless of who is to blame. It’s why I felt I had to speak about Israel tonight, despite earnest advice to the contrary, and lots of sleepless nights.
Because I felt responsible.
A Shamor Jew once challenged Tal Becker: “Our survival is at stake, we can’t afford to be moral.” Becker responded, “Our survival is at stake, we can’t afford not to be moral.”
When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptians drowned behind them, they started singing in triumph and God admonished them: “How dare you sing for joy when my people are drowning?” God insists that our enemies too, are God’s children.
We must see their suffering and acknowledge their humanity.
Not just for them—but for us.
Remembering to see the humanity in the enemy is not just a moral issue, it’s also ultimately a security issue, and it is the only thing that brings me true hope. Because…
The Palestinians I met, like Israelis, want a better future.
The Palestinians I met, like Israelis, want to live with dignity and respect.
The Palestinians I met, like Israelis, love their children, and want them to live in peace.
So on this Yom Kippur we must refuse to be overwhelmed by the currents of pessimism.
The peace process may seem dead—for now.
But giving up on the hope for peaceful coexistence is not an option for millions of ordinary Israelis and Palestinians who yearn for a better future.
As Ehud Barak, whom I interviewed at Central Synagogue last year, has said; “Anxiety is not a national strategy.
If a regional power like Israel lapses into a pessimistic, passive, self-victimizing frame of mind,
the result will be paralysis, missed opportunities and bleak prophecies that will prove self-fulfilling.”
But let me say—Hope, is our national strategy—
it is in our DNA and our spiritual history.
Our redemption narrative of crossing the Red Sea is not just mythical narrative.
The Jewish people has been redeemed time and again.
Israel has had more than its share of miracles already.
Israel’s very formation was a miracle.
Israel’s victory in the Six Day War was a miracle.
The raid in Entebbe was a miracle.
The covert airlifts of Ethiopian Jews were miracles.
Not one of these miracles was easy.
And not one of them was predictable.
We Jews have lived through miraculous redemptions time and again, and yet it’s our nature to despair that THIS crisis, the one right in front of us, is too impossible to redeem.
In June of 1967, as we faced annihilation, nobody could have dreamed that in six short days,
we would be victorious and reclaim our holiest sites.
That miracle, like every miracle, required the courage to take enormous risks.
Today, 50 years later, in the absence of any viable peace process, it feels too risky even to LISTEN to the other side.
But it is essential to continue to build the relationships, the infrastructure, the foundation
for an eventual peace.
Because I know that miracle for Israel will come, yet again.
Born of a hope based not on blind faith, not on naive trust, but on hard work.
A hope based on Shamor AND Zachor—
on protecting the interests of Israel’s safety, as well as its soul.
A hope forged in resilient listening to the stories of others—
Israeli and Palestinian and those of our fellow American Jews—
so we might get closer to truth.
A hope that we too, can be part of the ongoing miracle of the redemption of Israel.
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