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Peter J. Rubinstein
Vulnerability (Yom Kippur 5767)

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  October 2, 2006

By sundown today, it will be decided who among us in this Sanctuary will live out this year and who will not; by the end of today our destiny is sealed. Thus we hear from the Un’taneh Tokef prayer.

I admit that when I was younger, I was unmoved by the Un’taneh Tokef’s litany of “who shall live and who shall die; who shall see ripe age and who shall not.” I suppose detachment and innocence is a benefit of youth.

But I have reached that age when the rawness of life is very real. The experience of illness or the death of someone close awakens us to our own mortality. The passage of time erodes certainty and we accept that our lives are fragile. The cycle of life is not a metaphor. It is our own personal story.

This doesn’t make us sad. Rather, as a result, we are ever more aware and grateful for what we do have, the gifts from God: health, life, and love.

But, there is another side to the Un’taneh Tokef prayer. For it says our destiny is also determined by the brutality of humankind, the tragedies of human evil: who shall perish by sword, by strangling, by stoning. These are the threats of human destruction. And it is from these threats to our destiny that we are now feeling especially vulnerable and afraid.

We have been threatened. The United States has been threatened. Israel has been threatened. And Jews have been threatened.

Last week, I spoke about war and offered a template by which to measure war. I acknowledged that terrorists have taken aim at the United States and I said, “We need to respond with vigilance, intelligence, and firm national will and even force when and where it is proper.”

Whether it is an incipient clash of civilizations as some say, or an attack by “Islamo-fascists” as others say, or a more benign “conflict of ignorance” as the Aga Khan said (NPR, September 25, 2006), two-thirds of us report that we are still “very concerned” about another attack here. We are feeling vulnerable. ( New York Times, September 7, 2006).

We no longer see the world “as a landscape of rolling hills,” as described by David Brooks. (New York Times, September 3, 2006) Now our mental image “of the landscape of humanity ... is filled with chasms, crevices, jagged cliffs and dark forests.” These images are propelled by sharp division rather than pluralism, and by murderous extremism rather than vibrant diversity.

I am not an expert in other religions and will not vilify all religious adherents of the Muslim faith, but there is deep concern about what is seen in a portion of the Muslim community. Thomas Friedman named it. He wrote that the Western masses “see violence exploding from Muslim communities and they find it frightening, and they don’t think their leaders are talking honestly about it.”

We are deeply troubled by the villainous and destructive reaction to the Danish cartoons. And we are deeply troubled by the riots, murder, and burning of churches by Muslim mobs in reaction to the Pope’s recent speech. Violence and carnage serve notice that extremism might not be an isolated phenomenon.

Still, I believe a Muslim friend who wrote that Muslims who “are deeply committed to a human and compassionate expression” of their faith cannot allow themselves “to be swamped by the noise of religious obscurantism” and the characterization of Islam as a whole “as a threat to civilized values.” (Farid Esack, On Being a Muslim)

Thus, as I pledged last week on behalf of this community, we commit ourselves to bridge the divide of ignorance. Barring conversation with those who would relish killing us, we will pursue admittedly difficult conversations with those who, in time, will join us in an effective pursuit of peace.

We here have been struck by terrorism. We feel vulnerable.

And Israel is threatened as well.

We can conclude from the war that Hezbollah launched this summer that Israel can do nothing to conciliate the animus in the Arab/Islamic world except to disappear, and, God willing, that is not going to happen. This is the irony. Israel withdrew from Gaza a year ago this summer providing the first independent Palestinian territory in history. Within a week of Israel’s withdrawal, rockets were fired from Gaza aimed at the nearby Israeli city of Sedorot. These attacks were not on army camps, not even on the settlers who had previously occupied Gaza. These attacks were on civilians living within the pre-1967 borders. In the year since Israel’s withdrawal, a thousand rockets have been fired from Gaza and the international community did not notice and seemed not much to care.

The war in the north exploded furiously when Israel responded to an armed incursion across its northern border, the killing of its soldiers and the kidnapping of others. It did as would do any sovereign nation when attacked. It struck back. By all military accounts, Israel’s retaliation in southern Lebanon was objectively successful, but Israel suffered on two counts: it suffered a barrage of castigation by governments indicting Israel for a disproportionate use of force. Support of Israel was also torpedoed on the front pages of some newspapers. By its own account The New York Times placed eight times as many photographs of Lebanese as of suffering Israelis on the front page, preposterously defending its practice in the name of proportionality. Too often Israel was portrayed the ogre, Hezbollah as the innocent. How dangerous can be the self-righteous!

We deplore the death of innocent civilians, but we vociferously condemn using innocent civilians as shields. For that Israel is not accountable.

And Israel also suffered a profound case of compromised self-image. The legendary Israel Defense Force was not able to score a knock-out campaign in Lebanon. It did not destroy Hezbollah as was ill-advisedly promised. It did not achieve a tactical miracle to which we have become accustomed. In the wake of this war, unlike other wars, Israel could not expect a quiet border, even for a day.

Israel has murderous enemies in its neighborhood. Iran’s president continues to lobby for Israel’s dismemberment, even as he denies the Holocaust. Syria’s president, who hinted at the annihilation of Jews when he met with the former Pope, sets untenable conditions for talks and continues to supply rockets and armaments to his proxies: Hamas and Hezbollah. The Hamas Palestinian Prime Minister nixed the formation of any coalition that would recognize Israel. How sad!

But we also have problems with the support of Israel here at home. Two-thirds of American Jewry have never visited Israel and decreasing American Jewish support for Israel is being reported. Many young Jewish students are impacted by their universities. The public escalation of hostility to Israel on the college campus, the de-legitimization of Israel in the classroom, universities’ incipient divestment policies, and profoundly anti-Israel views among faculties, described by one former university president, erodes support of Israel and even Jewish identity among students. [Larry Summers quoted in American Jewry and the College Campus, p.11 AJC]. Anti-Israel rhetoric morphs into anti-Semitic behavior.

The nightmare of a sovereign calamity in Israel pecks at us. We, who love Israel, support Israel, stand with Israel, and find meaning in the existence of Israel worry about Israel’s future. It is vulnerable.

And we feel vulnerable as Jews.

Last February I led a group of Presbyterians and Jews from New York to Israel, seeking to have the Presbyterian Church reverse their stance about divesting from Israel. Gratefully we were successful in that campaign. But, on the second day of that trip, we were standing on a hill east of the Old City of Jerusalem being addressed by a Palestinian, described as moderate. She was speaking about the barrier Israel had built to keep terrorists at bay. The barrier passed by the speaker’s house in the Abu Dis neighborhood of east Jerusalem. There is nothing nice about that wall except that it has been dramatically effective in reducing terrorism and the loss of civilian life.

From all physical appearances, Jerusalem seemed to be at its peaceful springtime best, but the vituperation spewed by the speaker belied the calm. I expected that she would condemn Israel for what she called its “occupation.” That is a political matter but then she made it personal. Pointing to Israeli soldiers at a small encampment near by, the speaker snarled her accusations at them: They were loud, they were disgusting, they used drugs, they drank to excess. They brought women to their base and engaged in public sexual behavior, activities which are not only prohibited but diligently policed within Israel’s military so that they not happen.

Her venom was no longer aimed at Israeli policy, no longer about a separation barrier, no longer about what she called an occupation. She frivolously repeated the same libels against those Israeli soldiers with which we Jews have been branded in the rabidly vicious anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders in Zion, the same libels by which we were branded by the Nazis, and the same libels by which we have been branded by Jew-haters throughout history. Anti-Semitism has become a corollary of anti-Zionism. Those who hate Jews have turned on Israel and those who hate Israel have turned on Jews. We are all on the front line together.

Mel Gibson, arrested for drunk driving, tells a police officer that “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” Anti-Jewish art is exhibited in Iran and in the Arab press with the typical anti-Semitic caricature of Jews with big noses but this time, we’re portrayed as dressed in Nazi uniforms. Anti-Semitic incidents have been on the rise in Argentina. This summer there was an attack on a synagogue in Sydney, Australia, vandalism of synagogues in Miami, and a fatal shooting at Seattle’s Jewish Federation. British Jewry suffered a spike of anti-Semitic incidents and recorded at least 90 during July. (JTA 8/14/06)

Last year, 5766, was not a good year for our sense of well-being. We feel threatened and vulnerable: as Jews, as supporters of Israel and as citizens of this country.

So where to turn?

Our ancestors were clear that the fearsome possibilities and twists of our lives enumerated in the u’ntaneh tokef prayer were not all in God’s hands: not the sword, not torture, not massacres, not bombs.

These ills are humanity’s realm as their antidotes are also in our hands. Human evil and salvation, warfare and peacemaking, enmity and amity are the human condition and within our grasp, yours and mine.

The u’ntaneh tokef concludes, “Teshuvah, tefilah, u-tzedakah,” “Repentance, prayer, and charity,” these will turn the tide, these will establish our dominion, these will demonstrate our power in life, these will be our answer to vulnerability and powerlessness, these will make us whole.

Teshuvah - “repentance” connotes an altering of direction. Teshuvah demands that we not accept the inevitability of world events. No, it commands us to be responsible for the world’s condition. It imagines vision and promise when we are desperate. Teshuvah even envisions those on opposite sides of the battlefield tentatively seeking accommodation and a “pursuit of common goals” together. [Vali Nasr The Shia Revival spoken about on Rosh Hashanah]

Teshuvah prods us to move forward so that we escape the trap of using history to prove ourselves right and our enemies wrong. Arguing historical rights is both ineffective and sidetracks the search for peace with those on the other side.

Teshuvah is precarious and difficult. It demands stepping into uncertainty. Our ancestors expected that we could do better if we turned, or returned to each other.

And tzedakah, rather than charity is Judaism’s central call to justice.

Tzedakah: what we do for others in need, what we do for our community, and what we do for the best of Jewish values and life. Tzedakah is the most direct response to the threats we feel.

I can’t tell you everywhere you can put your energy and resources, but I mention these few organizations, which I believe are worth our attention (which will be linked to our website):

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) - AIPAC is the most effective organizational mechanism for strengthening the relationship between Israel and the United States.

ARZA, the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and the Union for Reform Judaism - actuate our reform movement’s support for Israel and support of reform Jews throughout the world.

The Campus Truth Foundation - is “A group of Americans, of many faiths, who champion diversity of opinion and believe in truth and tolerance.” Take a look at their Web site and see a resistance to propaganda and injustice against Jews but also against African-Americans, Hispanics and all minority students.

Rabbis for Human Rights - is concerned specifically with giving voice to the Jewish tradition of human rights in Israel for Israeli Jew and Arab, Muslim and Christian.

And of course the Israel Emergency Campaign ofUJA-Federation of NY - UJA-Federation is an organization which always deserves our unswerving and generous support, especially during crisis.

We turn to others with teshuvah. We turn to our community with tzedakah. Finally, we turn to God with tefilah.

Tefilah, translated as prayer, requires our introspection and reflection. I still struggle to adequately define prayer, but I do know that prayer takes us beyond the limits of our rationality to a personal and humbling relationship with God. Tomorrow afternoon we will take time to stand alone or with others in front of the ark and the Torah: to feel the presence of ancestors, to be nourished by our tradition and faith, to reflect on our lives. Tefilah empowers us to meet adversity and to understand that, though vulnerable, we will not cower; though worried, we will not surrender; though afraid, we will not hide. Tefilah makes us whole.

We cannot know what this year will hold for us. But this we do know. Our ancestors faced adversity beyond what we feel and they endured. They were maligned and persecuted more than we will ever know, God willing. But they believed in a future and imagined a better world. They pursued peace.

Yes we feel vulnerable but our ancestors’ spiritual DNA runs in us. So we will bear witness to our ancestors’ dreams and take our place with our own dreams. We will lift our heads and our spirits. We will turn to others and assure each other a better year. We will nourish our community. We will feel the fortitude promised by God. Thus shall we be strong. Thus shall we go on!

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