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Israel: A Force of Progress and Change

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

In its first few years, Israel was famous for its agriculture. It exported Jaffa oranges, Carmel wines, and flowers. Slowly, manufactured goods replaced these; and then, as in a storm, hi-tech took over. There are few orange groves left, all have given way to high-rise apartment and office buildings.

Israel’s national character changed just as rapidly. In its early years, Jews from Russia founded kibbutzim and communal villages and established Israel’s social and political system. After the Holocaust, refugees poured in from all over Europe. In the 1950’s, almost a million Jews, expelled from hostile Arab countries, made Israel their new home. In the 1970’s, a million and a half Russian Jews left the land where the term “pogrom” originated, leaving behind a system that still refused them the right to live as Jews. In the 1980’s and 90’s, close to 30,000 Ethiopian Jews were flown into Israel in stealth, so as not to upset a secret agreement with the government of Ethiopia.

Kibbutz Galuyot—the ingathering of the exiles—was not an easy process. Each group brought its strengths as well as its weaknesses. Absorbing so many people in such a short time was an almost impossible task—yet Israel persisted and found ways to adapt, to change, to absorb, and to integrate. In those years, Israel’s highest goal was to give shelter to the homeless, to provide safety and security to those who were persecuted, and to ensure that the Jewish People would never again be helpless victims.

Survival in the new land brought new demands and more changes. Never permitted to own land, Jews had to learn how to till the stubborn ground and make it fertile again. Then they had to learn to be soldiers and do the unthinkable—stand up and fight to defend themselves, their families and their homes. With each war that Israel fought, it had to change tactics. From an invasion of seven Arab armies in 1948, to cordon and blockade in 1967; to a surprise attack on Yom Kippur in 1973; to an unending barrage of missiles and rockets; to terror and kidnappings; to murder and assassination, Israel has stood firm and—not without the help of our brothers and sisters in the United States—was able to fend off the attacks. When our enemies changed their strategy and turned to legal and diplomatic warfare in international courts, in economic unions and even on college campuses, Israel responded in kind.

Through all its wars, Israel developed not only one of the strongest and most moral army in the world—the Israel Defense Force—but possibly also the best espionage and secret service organization of modern times—the legendary Mossad.

But Israel hasn’t had to adapt only to external stimuli. Internal issues continue to demand its attention. Bringing the Ethiopian Jews to Israel was nothing compared to bringing them up to speed with the 21st century. This was a population whose family, educational and social structures back home were completely different from what they encountered in modern Israel.

Israel has had to contend with the emotional and psychological effect of almost daily loss of life on the battlefield as well as in horrific terror attacks. Yet rather than weakening our resolve, the tragedies only resulted in Israel becoming one large family and a tighter, united community. Whenever tragedy struck, everyone, everywhere, mourned. When Sgt. Max Steinberg, a lone soldier from Southern California who volunteered to serve with the IDF, was killed during the Gaza War in 2014, 30,000 Israelis came to his funeral. When Sean Carmel from Texas, age 21, fell, 20,000 came to show their love, thanks and respect. When Staff Sgt. Major Hadas Malka, a border police officer, was stabbed and killed in a Jerusalem terror attack, hundreds of young women from all over the country volunteered to serve in the Border Police Unit. The change Jews had undergone, from weak, defenseless victims, to strong, resolute and determined fighters, is one of the greatest transformations of all time.

Today, however, Israel faces even greater challenges.

Israelis are evenly divided today over Israel’s control of the West Bank. Following the 1967 Six Day War, hundreds of thousands of Israelis streamed into land that had previously been under Jordanian control. With the establishment of new cities and settlements, however, new problems arose: What to do with the vast, impoverished Palestinian population that had been kept in miserable conditions for two decades in UN-financed refugee camps. What had previously been Jordan’s problem became Israel’s problem. For a time, coexistence seemed possible, but more and more it seems that Israel is going to have to find a way to disengage from some of these lands, probably sooner than later.

Israel’s religious identity is also a vortex of change and contention. Israel was established as a Jewish state, but the meaning of that term has never been clear. Even as David Ben Gurion declared Israel’s independence, he made the decision to let Orthodox religious parties join the government. Since that time, the religious parties have enjoyed disproportionate power and influence. Despite the fact that 2/3 of Israel’s Jewish population considers itself secular, their rights to marry, divorce, convert and even worship have been controlled and curtailed by the ultra-Orthodox. Whether the struggle to change this system will be successful or not is still to be determined.

Other social changes modern Israel contends with include gay rights. Though in many aspects Israel is one of the most progressive and gay-friendly countries in the world, there are some glaring exceptions. Gay marriage is not recognized in Israel, and child adoption by same-sex couples is prohibited by law. Yet here, change is in the air. This past summer, the government presented its opinion that single-sex parents “load additional baggage on an adopted child, already burdened by the presumed stigma of adoption.” This statement provoked outrage in the LGBTQ community in Israel and in the US, and within days, the government backed down from this position. Even though this law has not yet been changed, it now seems to be moving in that direction.

Overarching all of these changes, Israel today is redefining the larger meaning and purpose of its existence. Whereas once Israel saw as its primary objective providing shelter, safety and security for all Jews, it has now set a new goal for itself. Our ancient prophets spoke of Israel as being a light unto the nations. With this ideal in mind, Israel today is positioning itself as a benefactor of humanity. It does not save its medical or technological advances for itself, but rather uses them to help impoverished nations around the world. From empowering women to providing solar energy technology; from teaching new water- and soil-conserving farming methods to tackling poverty and disease, Israel focuses its efforts on enabling governments, communities and individuals to improve their own lives. Whenever and wherever disaster strikes—a hurricane, earthquake or epidemic—Israel is among the first to send medical and technical teams to help. Today, Israel is at the forefront of improvement and progress, willing to share lessons it has learned the hard way with whoever is willing to sit and learn.

Change is inevitable. In the last few years, public opinion of Israel worldwide has changed dramatically. The Jewish community in the United States is no longer as supportive as in previous years. Today we see American Jews who refuse to support Israel financially or politically. I was fortunate enough this past summer to visit an Air Force base somewhere in Israel. As I watched an F-16 taxi, take off and roar overhead, I learned that just the maintenance cost of this newest and most powerful jet in Israel’s arsenal is $40,000 an hour—let alone the human factor or the cost involved in installing the most up-to-date hi-tech enhancements that benefit not only Israel, but also the United States.

It’s OK to choose which specific organization in Israel one prefers to help, from ecological and environmental, to religious, medical, cultural or educational institutions. But what we American Jews must never lose sight of is that there is a high price to pay for our hard-won right to live as free and proud Jews.

Today, a new generation is growing up: a generation that has not known pogroms or discrimination; a generation which never saw Israel as a dream, and does not recognize the need for Israel as a safe haven. Many of today’s young, confident and poised Jews do not feel that they need Israel’s protection. Some of them are turned off by what they see happening in Israel and the West Bank and do not take the time to understand the history behind events. It is essential that we teach them the meaning and purpose of Israel. They must learn its history, both ancient and modern.

The Jewish People have always striven to move culture and civilization forward. Today, we must all recognize and cherish the modern State of Israel not only for what it has been, but also for what it still is. Today, in a world where everyone wants change but is afraid of it, in a world where no one wants to be a leader and move towards change, Israel stands alone, tall and unafraid, still and as ever a powerful force for progress and development.

An Israel that is safe and secure within its borders, living peacefully alongside its neighbors, is still a far-off dream. But, as the visionary prophet of the modern State of Israel, Theodore Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl, said over a century ago, “If you will it, it is no dream.” It will take our collective will, and the support of each and every one of us. Still, I have no doubt that if we put our backs to it, this wonderful vision can and will become astonishing reality. May this time come soon and in our own day.

Ken y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will. G’mar chatimah tova—may we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for a good year of health, love joy and peace. Amen.

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The Choices Before Us

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

Personally, I feel energized by the High Holy Days, restored by the spiritual journey that they take me on. This season fills with gratitude for the many blessings in my life, though I do also feel sadness and pain. There’s sadness for the passing of time, and for the distance that lies between me and my loved ones; and deep pain for the loss of family and friends who are no longer with us.

There’s regret for what we haven’t yet accomplished, but also new strength to redress and repair the wrongs in our life. And yes, there is guilt, but along with guilt there is also the prospect of reconciliation.

To be sure, there is fear, too. We don’t know what the new year will bring with it, and the unknown fills us with dread. But then we’re restored, for right there, right next to fear, are also hope, faith, and trust.

The High Holy Days do give us a choice, but this choice is anything but shallow or simple.

Yom Kippur opens with Kol Nidrei, an ancient and moving prayer that absolves us of vows, obligations, and promises. However, it actually has even greater power and a more exalted mission: Kol Nidrei liberates us. It frees us from all obligations. Kol Nidrei gives us permission to examine every word we’ve given, every pledge we’ve made. It isn’t only in the court of Heaven that our ethics and morals are scrutinized. It’s down here. We get to define what we believe in, and we get to decide how best to show our commitment to our ideals. It’s our free choice.

Kol Nidrei calls on us to look at all of our ideals and principles, both those that are very personal and those that bind us together as a community, as Jews and as Americans. And tonight, I would like us to consider a value we hold high above others. Patriotism. The question that we have been asking ourselves for several days now is, What does it mean to respect the flag of the United States and our national anthem.

There is no greater symbol of the greatness of America, its ideals and its contributions to humanity and the world, than this banner and this powerful anthem. On the Fourth of July, to kick off a sports event, and certainly when American athletes win gold at the Olympics, hearing our national anthem never fails to bring a lump to the throat. We feel pride and awe as we join in and reach for those impossibly high notes on “The rockets’ red glare.” They are hard to sing, but how better to symbolize the high and lofty goals and purposes of our country: Liberty, equality and justice for all.

The debate we are engaged in now is about how best to pay homage to these symbols. How does it feel for us to watch athletes—the very personification of our ideals of strength and endurance—when they take the knee or fail to stand at moments when reverence and respect are called for? These days, we are asked—and we ask ourselves: Do these gestures show disrespect to the flag, and thus to America? Or do they perhaps express the shame, the humiliation and even the dangers that people of color and other minorities face on an almost daily basis in the United States?

There’s a cultural battle being waged in America today. Some say that it’s simply an extension of the racial struggle that has always divided our country. But without a doubt these past few days and weeks, the rhetoric and violence have seen a sharp rise in volume and pitch. There is tension and division between those who say that America’s flag and national anthem must be respected regardless of personal views and opinions, and those who feel that the best way to show them respect is to safely and judiciously use the freedoms of speech and expression that these symbols stand for.

The real question here is, when a player takes the knee during the National Anthem, is that a sign of rejection, or is it an affirmation of what the flag really stands for—the constitutional right to protest a social wrong.

After all, taking the knee is nowhere near what we see in countries that view America as the enemy. There, the American flag is trampled on, torn, and burned. There, when good people, American soldiers or civilians, are killed, people rejoice, dance in the streets and pass out candies and sweets. No, as I see it, the symbolic gesture of taking a knee is not in itself an act of violence, nor incitement to hatred. Rather, it’s a respectful call to stop business as usual, a declaration that there’s a serious problem, a rift in our nation that requires dialogue and conversation to resolve.

On the other hand, what I do find disrespectful is the use of profanity to describe the protesters. Many of them overcame tremendous challenges to earn the admiration of their fans, and for millions of children who live in culturally and economically deprived areas, these athletes are a source of pride, kindling dreams of triumph in a harsh reality where opportunities for success and advancement are few and far between. To use insulting language against these individuals is to insult and humiliate the many who look up to them as legitimate heroes.

America was founded on noble ideals. More than a million men and women have given their lives in battle so that this country can thrive and live up to its noble expectations and ideals. Taking a knee does not diss their memory or bring shame to their ultimate sacrifice. What does bring shame to our Country and Flag is a political and social system that preserves racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, xenophobia and misogyny; that shames people who do not fit stereotype images; that cynically, cruelly and divisively, uses fear to enrich itself and augment its own powerbase. What does bring shame to us all is the use of foul language—in, of all places, the White House—to denigrate people who are an integral part of the fabric of the America, and who have given disproportionately of their strength and soul to build and defend it.

Do America’s flag and national anthem deserve to be honored and revered? Yes. Absolutely. They represent the highest ideals and goals upon which this country was founded and for which it stands.

Are sports and other public events the proper venue to protest and demonstrate? Here is where some of us may disagree. But my opinion is this: 70% of the players on the NFL are African Americans. For them, this is the only venue where they are recognized by all Americans for who and what they are. It is precisely at these arenas that they need to, are able to, and are free to say what needs to be said—that America’s ideals are not equally shared, that some of us are still considered less worthy citizens than others, and that racism is both immoral and an injustice.

In ancient days, Yom Kippur was an occasion when we asked God to judge us not only in righteousness, but also with compassion. Today, it is an opportunity for us to judge ourselves, as individuals and as a society. Today, Yom Kippur is so much more than only about guilt and fear. On this day we are given permission either to reject our ideals, or to affirm them. There is great freedom in that, but also great responsibility, for our choice can determine the future course of life and events.

What this Yom Kippur demands of us, today, is not only to examine the faults or merits of our own, private lives, but also to engage in wider, public discussion about the kind of nation we are. Unlike other countries, the United States isn’t made up of only one nationality, one language or one religion. Our society is compound and complex. Our strength, however, is in our unity, and our Union depends as much on our own personal integrity as on our ability to listen to one another, to hear what others are trying to tell us about their lives, about their fears and about their needs.

This is the gift of Kol Nidrei: The freedom to choose. This day empowers us. It teaches us that we may—indeed we must—let go of empty words, vain gestures and hollow vows. But instead of turning to chaos and anarchy, Kol Nidrei calls upon us to live our lives in such a way that our pledges and oaths once again become valid and meaningful. The choice is ours.

Tonight I pray that this year we might see America united by love and mutual respect again; that this year we be blessed with reconciliation and peace; that hunger, ignorance and poverty be eradicated from our midst; and that all people, all over the world, be granted the blessings and opportunities they need and deserve for healing, repair and renewal.

G’mar chatima tova, may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet New Year. Ken y’hi ratzon.

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Ha-t’fillah She-balev – The Prayer of the Heart

By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman

Then there was the ancient belief, based on a pilpulistic interpretation of a verse from the Biblical book of Nehemiah, that God’s presence, the Shekhina, actually dwells in the west. If that’s the case then, one obviously would want to face God’s presence, rather than, God forbid, turn one’s back to the Shekhina, and therefore one would face west when praying.

And there are still other, even more curious customs. So, for example, in yet another tractate in the Talmud, we learn that “one who wants to become wise should turn south [during prayer]; one who wants to become rich should turn north… Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, ‘One should always face south because from becoming wise, one will [also] become rich.’ Obviously.

Rabbi Yishmael, a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva and a leading sage of the first century, tried to make peace between the many schools of thought by positing the opinion that one could actually face in any direction, since God’s presence was everywhere.

Not surprisingly, however, the arguments do not end with this. Not by a long shot. In the middle ages, Maimonides, Joseph Caro (author of the Jewish law compendium, the Shulchan Aruch) and many other wise rabbis were spending an enormous amount of time on this very dilemma. To face east, as was the custom of many pagans, or west, and away from Jerusalem? And if you did face in another direction, would it be a fair compromise to turn your face to the east, even if your feet pointed elsewhere?

The question becomes even more complex in the 16th century, when it first became the custom to house the Torahs in an Ark that was actually inside the sanctuary. Prior to this time, the Torahs were carried into the sanctuary in their storage cases from rooms that could have been anywhere else. Once inside, the Torah was placed on a bimah—a raised platform—that was in the middle of the room, in the midst of the congregation, so that when it was read everyone faced inward, toward this center, rather than in any another direction. The chiddush—this novelty—of building an in-house Ark and placing it against the eastern wall, set a whole new set of arguments in motion.

We know, however, that by the late 19th century, nearly all synagogues were being built to face east. In “Fiddler On The Roof,” Tevye’s deep aspiration to sit at the eastern wall reflects the by-then-established custom of honoring leaders of the community—rabbis, cantors, and the very rich—in this manner.

But the question was still not resolved, and the arguing continued back and forth. And I really don’t want to complicate it any further, but one of the questions that came up was not whether one should face Jerusalem, which was a given, but rather, should one face in the direction of the shortest route to Jerusalem, since, on a spherical world, the shortest route isn’t always the compass route. For example, the compass distance between New York and Jerusalem is about 600 miles longer than the great-circle distance. Which is why airlines that fly from the US to Israel fly over Greenland, well into the Arctic, before turning due south. It may not be the in the precise direction of the east, but it is the shorter route, and isn’t that what really counts when you really want to get somewhere fast.

In the words of our beloved Reb Tevye, these are all questions that would cross a rabbi’s eyes, and in the end, one would have to spend far more time calculating and measuring than actually praying, and that of course would defeat the whole purpose of prayer.

But another interpretation of King Solomon’s prayer regarding the Temple does offer us yet another possibility: This lesson takes the phrase, “They shall pray to you b’chol l’vavam u-v’chol nafsham (‘with all their heart and with all their soul’)” to mean that a person may direct his or her prayers to God’s dwelling within their heart and within their soul.

This answer takes a lovely turn in a lesson taught by the Chassidic Rebbe, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, who said, “You should know that every shepherd has a unique song, all his own; and know, too, that each and every blade of grass has its own, unique, song. It is from the song of the grass that the shepherd’s song is created. How beautiful it is when we hear this song, how lovely when we pray to its tune and serve God in awe. For this song of the grass causes the heart to awaken; and when the heart awakens, it longs and yearns for its home in the Land of Israel. And then, the Land responds, and a great, wondrous light emerges from the Land of Israel and rises toward the heart, and then the song becomes the Prayer of the Heart.”

Our befuddled NASA rabbi would have known all this; he would have known that in the space shuttle, time was coordinated to match the time zone in Houston, so no matter how many sunrises he saw, he only had to lay tefillin once a day, not every 90 minutes.

And as to what direction to face, if you ever do find yourself floating in the vast majesty of outer space, perhaps the best advice to follow would be Rabbi Nachman’s, who taught us to look for God’s presence inside our hearts, and to make our prayer The Prayer of the Heart, Ha-t’fillah she-balev. And then, when we let our prayer join the prayer that comes from the heart of the person sitting next to us, and the one next to him or her, when all these prayers merge into one song, then that song rises to Heaven, in fulfillment of the line in Psalm 150 that reads, “Let every soul praise God, Halleluyah.”

That, I would say, would be the right way to pray.

May our prayers all rise and be acceptable to God today and every day of our lives.

L’shana tova tikateivu, may we all be inscribed for a good and sweet New Year, Amen.