Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Yearning (and other stuff)

The Yearning (and other stuff)

My valedictory sermon on Israel. Transcending today's headlines and political divides, reaffirming the unbreakable bond between the Jewish people and the Jewish State. It begins with yearning.

Photos for this week’s issue taken by me during various visits to Israel

This week, In This Moment begins its Substack incarnation as a full-fledged newsletter, complete with main essay, random reflections and recommended stuff. This is what I’ve doing with the Shabbat-O-Gram since way back when Al Gore invented the internet, and as I now transition over to post-pulpit life, I’ll be expanding on that format. I hope you’ll read and recommend my musings. For those who don’t know me (or may have fleeting recollections of my Jewish Week columns) You can check out my bio to see what I’ve been up to, and my recent Substack piece called “Flipping the Script” to get an idea where I am headed. So, as Fareed likes to say, let’s get started.

Recommended Watching


Click here for a selection of downloading options for this sermon

Last fall we commemorated 50 years since the Yom Kippur War, whose secular anniversary fell on October 6, just one day before one of the darkest days of Jewish history. And since that day-after, we’ve agonized over Israel’s vulnerability and ruminated over its evolving place in our lives.

The circumstances were quite different 30 years before, on Yom Kippur, 1993, just days after the Oslo Accords were signed on the White House lawn. I devoted my sermon that day to the 20th anniversary of that same Yom Kippur war, and to our evolving feelings about Israel. My goal was to recapture that connection that had bound American Jews to Israel for decades and translate it to a new generation. I’ve recently rediscovered that sermon in my files and have posted it to my website. That 1993 High Holidays sermon was my first in Stamford devoted entirely to Israel. 

This is the bookend, my valedictory Israel sermon before I move on next month.

Both then and now, I seek to transcend what’s happening in Israel at any one particular time.  In saying that, I acknowledge that I am torn by conflicting feelings over the current situation – multiple moral clarities, if you will: feeling the pain of Israel’s vulnerability as well as profound disappointment in its current government, the worst in Israel’s history, and anger at the world’s hypocrisy, and disgust at the brutality of the terrorists.    One can feel all of that - and chew bubble gum - at the same time (as long as the gum has Bazooka Joe comics in Hebrew). 

But what I need to say about Israel transcends any one historical moment - including this one. Back in 1993 and again now, I can do that by returning to the yearning.

It starts with a yearning. 

For 2,000 years, Jews yearned to return to their homeland. It was part of each day’s prayers, morning, afternoon and evening, and after meals, too; a yearning to return to Jerusalem, to the good land, the land of milk and honey. It was part of secular folklore as well. Bialik’s bird, of whom he was so jealous, who could fly from the dark snows of Ukraine to the glowing fields of the Holy Land; Agnon’s goat that found a secret tunnel, a shortcut to Israel, a secret that was lost forever when the goat was mistakenly slaughtered.

That elusive, treasured homeland, the focus of all Jewish yearning, Hatikva shnot alpayim, for 2000 years. The anthem states, in its first two lines, “Nefesh Yehudi Homiyah,” “The Jewish soul yearns,” and “Ayin l’Tzion Tzofia,” which can be translated “Our eye looks to Zion with yearning.” The word tzofia connotes more mere than taking in a view. It means to scout out on behalf of God; it connotes eager expectation touched by intrigue, anticipating a date with destiny. Israel’s national anthem, “The Hope,” could easily have been entitled “Our Yearning,” which perfectly reflects the mood of the poet, Naphtali Herz Inber, and the Jews of his time - and most times, until maybe our time.

We somehow stopped yearning when it looked like the promise had been fulfilled - even though we were actually far from the goal.

Enter any Jewish home 150 years ago, or 200, and 500, and you would likely have seen a mizrach on the wall facing east, the wall closest to Jerusalem. Any home. Any Jewish wedding would include a breaking of the glass, as symbol of our exile, and ache that even the most joyous occasion could not wipe away.

A Mizrach - Israel Museum

Even after the state was born, that continued. We couldn’t believe our eyes. We didn’t think it could last. On his first visit to the United States, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was received at the White House by President Johnson with military honors. It was a very poignant scene as the leader of Israel, little Israel, reviewed the honor guard of the mightiest nation on earth. And then the band played Hatikva, and something happened to the distinguished Jewish visitor: he began to cry visibly.

There is something about Hatikva that makes you cry, isn’t there?

An hour or so later, A friend asked him what had gone through his mind as he listened to Israel’s national anthem.

“It was strange,” said Eshkol. “I was back in my little shtetl near Kiev.”  I saw myself as a young boy leaving heder and running, running from a mob of hooligans who were after me. And I thought, only a Jew like Eshkol, with roots in both Kiev and Jerusalem, only he could think of a Jewish child running in fear while being honored at the White House.” 

As Amos Oz put it, “my dreams are Israeli; my nightmares Jewish.”

Elie Wiesel, in recounting, Eshkol’s story, said, “There is a link between that frightened Jewish child and the proud leader of Israel’s sovereign nation. Were Israel to forget that child, she would not be Israel.”

We haven’t forgotten that child. If anything has been proven over the last eight months, it is that. We still are that child. Israel still is that child. We still recall the oppression that made Israel such a necessity, although Israel was born one decade too late.  And last October the army arrived 10 hours too late. We are always afraid of being saved too late. Rescues in the nick-of-time almost never happen in Jewish history. There’s the Red Sea and…um… Entebbe, maybe? Well, we did get Waze out into the market early enough. But we are the people of too late.  Our meetings, our services, our Seders – everything runs late.  But we thought our army would arrive on time.  Our army and our God.

We can’t allow our yearning for Israel to dissolve in the chaotic aftermath of our too-lateness, of our profound disappointment at being victimized again and again. We need more Israeli dreams and fewer Jewish nightmares.

We must overcome the primal fear that stalks us, as David did in En Gedi (Psalm 18:34) where he confronted his tormentor Saul and gained the confidence to yearn again:

God made my legs like the ibex,
and set me firmly on the heights.

We can’t forget how to cry during Hatikva.  We can’t forget the yearning. Our children and grandchildren cannot forget. We can’t forget that frightened child who became the Prime Minister and visited the White House.  We cannot forget that we are that frightened child.  Every Jew is.  And that fright is what unites us, in a macabre way, but in a way that explains why we cannot tolerate – nor should not – those whose sole goal in life is to push us down, to suppress us, to rid the world of us. And we cannot accept our own status as permanent victims.

We need to understand that lingering psychology.  We must recognize that while we yearn for Israel, we all live in the state of Un-ease-rael.

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And we are beginning to take Israel for granted. We are treating Israel like it was always there, always will be there.  Nothing lasts forever. We must not take our multi-millennial masterpiece for granted. 

How many American Jewish homes have a mizrach on the Eastern wall today?

If I were to walk into a home anywhere in the world and see a picture of Jerusalem, the odds would be overwhelming that the occupant is Palestinian and not Jewish. We might not agree with them, but they have the hunger in their hearts that so many Jews no longer feel. 

How many even have a picture of Israel, a photo of Jerusalem anywhere, even a schlocky trinket from the shuk, like those mother of pearl camels or olive wood, mini menorahs? How many?

There is part of me that always lives in Israel. Not just a part of my family, my sister, who does live there. But a part of me feels that hunger all the time. I’m not whole without Israel in my life. I live on Israel time. I drive my loved ones Meshuggah. Back then I listened to Kol Israel’s 7 AM news on my shortwave at midnight here every night. Israel was my Tonight Show. As I went to sleep, part of me was waking up in Jerusalem.

Today I read the Israeli newspapers online every evening. I devour all the Israeli news from any sources that I can get a hold of. I eat hummus approximately every other day and dream of returning to Abu Shukri in the Muslim quarter of the Old City as soon as I can. It’s the best in the world - if you don’t get dysentery. 

My life is a mere existence between visits to Israel, when it becomes a full flowering once again.

When Tel Aviv and Haifa were hit by Iraqi Scuds in 1991, I literally ran out of a house of Shiva because I needed to get home. I needed to be alone with my anguish. My first son was born the next week, otherwise I’d have been there on the next flight.  This past October 7, I had to write to the congregation, even though it was Simhat Torah.  I couldn’t wait.

Bubbe Dora

How do you feel about Israel? Do you recognize how precious it is to us, how our grandparents could not have conceived of its existence? My grandmother, too old to have visited - “missed the boat,” as she used to say - treasured a small container of dirt I brought back from Israel when I went on a teen tour.  Ten years after I returned from that tour, I poured that dirt into her grave. It was as close as she could get to being there.  We are living out her dream, and it’s only 10 1/2 somewhat uncomfortable El Al hours away. We don’t have to miss the boat. We can take a plane.

“There are 10 measures of beauty in the world,” the Talmud says, ‘and nine of them belong to Jerusalem.” Let’s turn those Jewish nightmares into Israeli dreams, and wake up with visions of Jerusalem in our heads. The smells of a zillion wildflowers and trees, and bus exhaust and donkeys, altogether, breathed in by Jews from 103 countries, wearing a dazzling variety of native clothing, and Muslims and Christians from all corners of the world, of bustling boulevards, electrifying architecture, universities, hospitals, museums, the ancient in the modern, all lining the sides of the worlds’ most spectacular hills.

To an American, for whom anything more than 50 years old is an antique, it is positively mind-boggling to rummage through remains of the City of David only to find out that David’s 3000-year-old. Jerusalem wasn’t even the first one. There are uncovered remains going back to the beginnings of civilization, and even beyond that.

There is a certain pride that is you feels on top of Masada - it can’t be explained; a certain magic in the thin air of mystical Safed - it can’t be described; and a certain stark beauty along the shores of Caesarea.  Pictures cannot capture it. 

All of these places of unmatched beauty have been targeted by missiles and drones these past few months. None of them looks like they did when I was last there.

The theme song for the movie “Exodus,” is based on a verse from this coming week’s portion,

But in the portion, it is God who says, “This Land is Mine,” not Paul Newman, not Pat Boone, and not the early Zionists. We have been given this land - on loan - as a sacred trust, to cultivate it and to administer justice within its borders, to live with kindness among kin and stranger alike.

And for that Land, and that justice and peace promised in the Torah, for that Promised Land, we still yearn.

It is time for the spirit of Zion to be revived. And that begins with the yearning. We must yearn again, but this time not just for our home, our Bayit, but for Shalom Bayit, peace in that home. For an end to terror and hostage dramas. For an end to Hamas rape and indiscriminate murder.  For an end to ethnic cleansing on all sides.  The long era of darkness and conflict must end, so that the Zionist dream can be fulfilled. Israel needs to be Jewish, democratic, and safe. It does not need to be bigger.

We must grab hold of the yearning before the window closes. Before the dream dissolves.

Bialik’s ode “To the Bird” should be pasted up on our windows. 

“Welcome Bird on my window how I miss you.

My soul went out in the winter when you left me.

Tell me sweet Bird.

Is there pain and suffering in the warm land?”

Yes, there is still pain and suffering; but there is also Jewish life renewed.  Israel today remains what it has been for 76 years – a miracle.

And a promise as yet unfulfilled. Which only increases the yearning, all the more.

In Psalm 18:34, David compares himself to the ibex at En Gedi, where he confronted his tormentor Saul and overcame his fear: "He made my feet like the feet of a deer and set me secure on the heights"

Random Thoughts: Laughing at Ourselves

  • Maybe it’s time for people to declare a moratorium on bad-taste Jewish jokes. It’s not that I’m triggered by having two-bit comics call my peeps cheap and controlling and miserly and all that - but the fact is that those jokes are tired, outdated, not really true and simply not funny. I watched the Tom Brady Roast on Netflix, which nearly destroyed the past two decades of my Patriot fan-life. I can deal with that, but the jokes just weren’t funny. They were offensive toward women, people of various racists, suicidal-psychopath tight ends and, of course, Jews. But at a time when antisemitism is on the rise, college campuses are aflame and people are once again being butchered because they are Jewish, do we really need to hear how cheap we are?

  • And this was done right in front of the man who has dedicated a huge amount of his hard-earned capital in the fight against Jew-hatred, Robert Kraft. Kraft was either a very good sport to hear all that garbage or he missed a golden opportunity to explain why humor and hate speech sometimes overlap, dangerously giving people license to hate, all in the cause of a good time.

  • And really, Kraft is one of the most generous people in the universe. He doesn’t fit the stereotype. I happen to know many extraordinarily Jews who aren’t cheap - you heard it here first! - and, get this, who also don’t control the world! And not just generous with their money but with their time, which is a commodity more precious, perhaps. Yes I know some - and one of them is George Soros (I only know him peripherally, but I did a wedding in his house) who is not a puppet master.

  • I also know some very miserly people who happen to be Jewish, but it’s not because they are Jewish that they are cheap. I also see Jewish individuals and organizations treating thriftiness as if it was one of the Ten Commandments, maybe replacing avoiding adultery, which is so passé. Thou shalt pay wholesale! Unfortunately, Jews are (metaphorically) buying into the stereotype. We are believing our bad press; especially younger Jews, who are already having their self-esteem being challenged because of Israel. That does not do wonders for Jewish Pride. If we could relegate J.A.P. (Jewish American Princess) jokes to the dustbin of comedy history, thanks in part to Mel Brooks’ overkill, why not some of the other stereotypes that are just not helpful, at a time when Jews are under relentless attack?

  • Maybe at the next rally for the Hamas genocidal rapist-murderers, some Jews could go and hold up a sign, “Paid Full Price!” So there!

  • And speaking of adultery, the current Trump trial skirts around the subject with regard to his supposedly not wanting to hurt Melania in paying out all that hush money. But no one is really taking that alibi seriously. Certainly not Trump’s legions of Christian evangelical followers who seem to want to completely exonerate the guy even if it means they come out on the side of “Make Adultery Great Again.” No one seems to care about the adultery. It’s, like, a given - and not just for him. This requires more random thought time, but not now.

  • Back to the Brady Netflix show. So tell me, is this joke funny? "Jeff Ross is so Jewish he only watches football for the coin toss." Did you just laugh? And if it is funny, is something wrong with us? Do we need to accept hate-humor only because it has always been accepted? Is Jerry Seinfeld right in claiming that political correctness has killed comedy? So, does he think the Jeff Ross football joke is funny? I happen to think the joke is lame. It’s tired. Been there, done that. (In fact, “Been there, done that” is also lame.”) Not particularly offensive by itself, but let’s just say that human civilization has not been inched forward by it.

  • There are stereotypical jokes about Jews that are funny but not mean. I think The Marvelous Mrs Maisel hit a home run with just about all of their Jewish humor, even though the best jokes were delivered by non Jews. (Here are ten good ones). An example:

    • Me, personally, I was never great at gift-giving. Maybe it’s because I never got to celebrate Christmas. I got Hanukkah. Doesn’t exactly prepare you the same way. For Christmas, a gentile would get a bike as a reminder that their parents love them. For Hanukkah, we would get socks as a reminder that we were persecuted.

  • Maybe it’s OK to laugh about ourselves. Critic Jason Zinoman writes this about Jews and humorSome artists argue that making light of prejudice, or turning purveyors of it into absurdities, robs hatred of power. I’ve been persuaded by that idea, and like many secular types, a Jewish sense of humor is more integral to my identity than any religious observance. It’s also a source of pride. A resilient comic sensibility that finds joy in dark places is one of the greatest Jewish legacies — as is an ability to laugh at ourselves.

  • As far as satire is concerned, the Book of Esther would put the Tom Brady roast to shame. It’s as brilliantly wicked as satire gets.

  • And in II Kings 2:23-25, when the prophet Elisha was roasted by a bunch kids who called him “Baldy!” - predating Brady by three thousand years - he took it quite well. He cursed them and some bears came out of the woods and mangled the kids. Ba-dum-dum. Now, compared to Nikki Glaser, that’s funny!

  • But let’s just say that for Bob Kraft (full disclosure - an old family friend), he might have been better off not showing up to this one. It was a bad look for the anti-hate guy to be around so much hate and not say anything about it. With 300 Iranian missiles in the air, aimed at murdering and maiming a few million Israelis and college campuses in crisis, we need for him to focus on his day job.

  • And does Kraft’s campaign really need to be called “Stand Up to Jewish Hate?” It is hard to tell at first whether the Jews are the haters or the hat-ees.

Here is some recommended reading

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