Rosh Hashanah – 2nd morning 5779 Why does Israel matter?

Rabbi KormisSermons

This second day of Rosh Hashanah I would like to talk to you about what Israel means for us and why Israel matters.… and the only possible way I can do it, is telling you why Israel matters to me.

I want to begin with a short story that happened to Elie Wiesél, the well-known writer and Holocaust survivor.

It was 1990 and Wiesél was visiting the city of Saragossa, in Spain.

And while walking through its impressive cathedral, a man approached him speaking French and offered to be his guide.  

During their conversation, it came out that Wiesél was Jewish and he spoke Hebrew.

The man exclaimed: “I have never met a Jewish person before, but I have something I have to show you. Maybe you can tell me what it is”.

So the two men walked to the Spaniard’s apartment, and there he showed Wiesél an old manuscript: “Is this Hebrew?” – The man asked.  

“My family has passed-it-down for generations.

We were told that if it was destroyed, we would bring a curse on our family”.

And Wiesél began to tremble as he was reading the document and discovered that in fact it was Hebrew and it was written almost five hundred years before.

Slowly he translated it for his host: “I, Moshe ben Avraham, forced to break all ties with my people and my faith, leave these lines to the children of my children and theirs, in order that on the day when Israel will be able to walk again, it’s head held-high under the sun without fear or remorse, they will know where their roots lie. Written in Saragossa, the 9th of Av, in the year of punishment and exile.”

“What’s the meaning of this document?” – asked the alarmed Spaniard.

He didn’t know anything about the history of the Spanish Jewry or the expulsion of the Jews in 1492.

And when Wiesél told him the story of our people, his eyes grew wider and wider.

Wiesél and the man parted ways, and it was not until a few years later that he really understood the meaning of what happened that day.

He was visiting Jerusalem and one stranger was following him, and when he reached him he said in broken Hebrew “Shalom.

Do you recognize me? Saragosa!”.

And once again, the man invited Wiesél to his apartment, and while they were walking he explained to him how he had come to Israel, studied Judaism and returned to the religion of his ancestors.  

When they entered the apartment, Wiesél understood why he was invited:

On the wall there was the old document, but now the man read it for him.

They spoke for a while and then Wiesél had to leave, but the man stopped him and said “You forgot to ask me my name. I want you to know my name.

It is Moshe Ben Avraham. He is alive after 500 years.”

The man had come home, to Israel, to the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people…

For me, Israel is a modern miracle for the Jewish people.

After its independence, Israel remains the only country in the Middle East where you can follow your own faith or ethnicity without fear of persecution or oppression.

Religious minorities, the LGBTQ community enjoy rights, protections, and opportunities unknown elsewhere in the region and in most countries, even in the West.

Democracy guarantees freedom of speech and press, and even more: Israelis are so critical of their politicians that a permanent self-scrutiny seems to be the national hobby of Israelis.

This is what is written in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State:

“ISRAEL will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture”.

The early Zionist thinkers imagined that Israel would be a place where Jews could live normal lives, that means that Jews could stop being the permanent outsiders in a gentile world.  

You are probably familiar with Ben Gurion’s expression: “We will know when Israel has become a normal country: When Jewish thieves conduct their business in Hebrew.” (He mentioned also another occupation, the oldest in history…).

But Israel is still far from being a normal country… because there is nothing normal about growing-up in a country that faces constant threats to its existence.    

It is not normal to live in a city that has been bombed by terrorists for years.

Even with shelters, and a defense system like Iron Dome, it will never be normal to live in a place where the threat of terror is considered normal.

It will never be normal to have only 30 seconds to find cover and save your life.

I lived in Israel for four years.

I saw the good and the bad, some things made me feel proud and others worried me very much.

But I learned that when there is disappointment, we must not give up our support, but rather do the opposite, that’s the time to contribute more for change, each one of us according to our particular capacities and vocations, and for the causes that we consider appropriate.

I trust that Israel will continue doing her part to solve her historical conflicts.

I think it is very important to reflect on when and how to raise our criticism.  

I have to be sincere and to recognize that I am very disappointed when I see fellow Jews who use the same aggressive language and concepts of those who reject Zionism, and they unite their voices with those who want to damage Israel.  

If we care about Israel, we should express our concerns with respect, in the right place and from a feeling of love and friendship.

The same way we would express positive criticism to members of our family or to close friends whom we love.

The Talmud says that “Love without criticism is not real love” but it also says that criticism must be expressed in a way that preserves the dignity of our loved ones.

Let’s not forget that Israel is where our family lives.

Unfortunately, in these past few months, we have witnessed two episodes that must be discussed if we really care about the future of the State of Israel.

The first one is the arrest of my colleague, Rabbi Dov Haiyun, Rabbi of Moriah Congregation in Haifa, for the “crime” of performing a traditional wedding ceremony between two Jews in Israel.

This outrageous arrest has stirred up many Jews in Israel and around the world to call for the dismantling of the Chief Rabbinate, since these unrepresentative government officials have proven incapable of respecting and protecting the plurality of Jewish practice in Israel and abroad.  

The second event is the passing of the new Jewish Nation State Law.

It is true that the State of Israel seeks to be two things at once, a democracy and a Jewish homeland, and that balancing these two goals is not easy.

Yet in the Declaration of Independence these two goals are harmonized by the statement that religious minorities are to be guaranteed equal protection.

In contrast, this new law signals a turn away from democracy and the demotion of non-Jewish Israelis to second class citizenship.

This is not the way of justice, it is not the path of righteousness, and it will certainly not lead toward peace.

Arab Israelis are a fifth of the State’s citizens, and it is essential that they and other minorities be treated as equal citizens, even if they do not share the religious identity of the Jewish majority.  

It’s true: Israel is not yet a place where Jews can finally become “normal”, and there is still work to be done, but it’s a place where Jews can become themselves and it’s a place where, in spite of all the challenges, Jews have done and can continue to do extraordinary things.

Israel is today undergoing a cultural Golden Age.

In literature, art, and film, Israelis are creating tremendous works and receiving international recognition.

In the scientific realm, Israelis are also on the cutting edge, continuously making new discoveries in medicine and agriculture.

They are using the most modern technology to treat patients, improve farming techniques and enhance the environment.

Israel is the international center for Jewish diversity, expression and innovation.

It is a place where we can love the best of our way of life, in all of its diversity… it is where we can feel home…and it is where Torah isn’t just a scroll:

It’s in the air, in the public space, in the halls of government and where even taxi drivers can teach Torah.

One of my Israeli colleagues told me this story that happened to him a couple of years ago:

He was going on a trip to the United States, and because he was a little nervous about getting to the airport on time on Sunday morning, he reserved a taxi on Friday afternoon, just before Shabbat.

Unfortunately, he forgot to ask the driver his contact number, so after Shabbat he became nervous about the driver showing up, and finally he decided to arrange for a second cab.

And you can imagine what happened: The next morning two taxis arrived at his building, right on time to take him to the airport.

The two taxi drivers looked at one another, and began to say, “This is my ride!” “No it’s my ride.”

My friend tried to solve the problem by offering to pay both drivers, but they didn’t want to listen to him.

Finally, one driver told the other that he found a “Solomonic solution” for the problem.

He would take my colleague to the airport, but my friend should do Tzedakah in an amount equal to the cab fare.

The second driver agreed, so relieved, my friend got into the cab to leave.

But as they were pulling-out, the second driver said to him:

“Brother, when you give the Tzedakah, remember that the mitzvah is mine!”.

And these were not religious Jews, they were typical secular Israelis…  

But Jewish culture, Jewish language, and Jewish values, were at the very core of their existence.

And that’s why Israel matters.  

Israel changed the conversation about what it means to be a Jew in today’s world. It is a reminder to us of why Judaism is so much more than a religion.

It is a way of life.

It is a community. 

We are connected by language, history, destiny and geography.

Consider these powerful words of David Ben Gurion:

“Today, we are in the process of writing a new Torah not only with scribes but with pioneers and farmers, artists and scientists, architects, teachers, engineers, legislators, collectivists, citizens in every walk of life.

All speak the language of Moses and even the freethinkers among them study deeply in the Book, the source of inspiration provider of a past and of a vision for the future. Our new Torah is being written now, but its best chapters are still to come.”

It’s true, Israel has challenges and problems, and it’s not a paradise, but even with all the religious, social, and political issues,   the miracle of Israel’s existence and all her amazing accomplishments are infinitely more than the sum of all her conflicts.

Zionism wanted to found not only a nation: it wanted to build a new type of society rooted in its land and in the culture of the Jewish people.

Religion was only a part of that culture: The Zionists wanted to create a new type of Jew, proud and strong and rooted in the land and tradition.

That’s why Israel matters to me and that’s why I think we need to support her, bechol lebabcha ubechol nafshecha, with all our love and all our means, regardless of what our particular views are.

My friends, this is the time to visit Israel.  

Two years ago a group from Beth El participated in the March of the Living program which finished in Israel on Yom Hahatzmaut.

I believe it is time for us to organize a new mission to Israel so we can go together and enjoy the uniqueness of visiting our Holy Land.

I invite you to stay tuned and get ready to join us on this mission as soon as we advertise the details.

I believe it is also time for us to continue giving money to the various organizations that support the State of Israel, to plant trees through JNF, to support the Emunah Center in Afula, or another Israeli organization that is close to your heart, so we can help to strengthen what we are proud of, or help improve what you think it is necessary to improve.    

It is the time to teach your children and grand-children… to take them to Israel and to tell them why Israel is so important for their Jewish identity…

…Because Israel is the spiritual home of the Jewish people…

…Because her accomplishments and her potential are much more than the challenges…  

…Because the threat that comes from kids asking why Israel matters, is bigger than rockets, missiles and tunnels…

…Because Israel is the place to which we return…

…because Israel is about dreams, and all the extraordinary things and miracles we have done and will continue doing…

… Because we must be confident, that the wounds soon will be healed, and peace, even if we cannot see it now, will arrive in our times.

→Remember: In Israel, if you don’t believe in miracles, you are not a realist. And that’s the only reason why Israel is real.

As we welcome a New Year in our lives, may God bless Medinat Israel, reshit tzmichat gueulatenu, the beginning of our redemption. And as we pray every Shabbat and holidays:

May God bless our holy land with peace and its inhabitants with lasting joy and let us say:


* This sermon was inspired by the teachings of Rabbi Claudio Jodorkovsky