We have added “fake news” to our lexicon, and we are investigating charges of foreign nationals surreptitiously influencing media coverage and conversation. We have allegations of corruption at the highest levels, where elected officials seem to be making decisions and deals that will net them a personal profit. And, we have had to raise our daughters in a landscape that considers them second class citizens.
I speak, of course, of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his leadership of our beloved State of Israel.
I was privileged to visit Israel twice this past year. And in the wake of those visits, I am grappling with a paradox.
On the one hand: I love Israel. I rejoice that she exists, and that I am privileged to be connected to her as a Jew.
My deep sense of identification with her is rooted in the conviction that Israel is as vital for the survival of the Jewish People today as it has ever been. Seventy three years after the Holocaust, and anti-Semitism still haunts the world. We Americans were shaken to our core when whispers of it turned in to shouts on the streets of Charlottesville at the end of the summer.
And so: I am filled with a deep and profound sense of ahavat Yisrael - love for the people and State of Israel…a sense of gratitude in knowing that Israel is there for me if - God forbid - I ever felt like I wasn’t safe here at home.
I feel a sense of wonder the moment I walk off the plane at Ben Gurion, and into a sophisticated modern airport that leads to the world’s premier high-tech incubator.
And I experience Israel as a deep sense of calm when I walk down the street on Friday night and know that I can turn to virtually anyone passing me on the street, whether they are religious or secular, Ashkenazi or Sephardi, and say: Shabbat Shalom.
It is a connection that is rooted for me in Ivrit, the Hebrew language, and the humble knowledge I have that - even if I’m not fluent - I know enough to join in the 3,000 year old Hebrew conversation. I get goosebumps when people use the Hebrew word for cellphone - a pelephone - which comes from the Torah’s word nifla - a wonder or miracle. I’m amazed that my Israeli brothers and sisters so ingeniously breathe new life in to Torah by connecting the semantics of our future to the sacred words of our past.
Above all else, my connection to Israel is rooted in pride. I feel pride when I make a pilgrimage to Masada and am reminded that my ancestors there chose to die with dignity, rather than be slaughtered by the enemy. And I feel that same pride, magnified a thousand times over, when I pass the young Israeli soldier on the street holding a rifle, insuring that Masada will never be repeated.
And yet, here we are on Yom Kippur.
One of the great truths of this day is that no one is perfect. Each of us is flawed. The ones we love most in the world are broken, each in their own way.
And that’s true not just of people, but of countries too.
And so I confess to you, that even as I am overwhelmed by my sense of being enchanted by Israel, I’m also left feeling disappointed and alienated. I’m left questioning what my relationship is to this country that I love so much.
The Israeli government doesn’t see the world the same way I do. It doesn’t seem bothered, like I am, by the pervasive discrimination leveled against Palestinians and Arabs that goes beyond security concerns. (Those security concerns are real, and we were reminded of that reality, because of the shooting we witnessed there this past week.)
Nonetheless: the government doesn’t seem bothered, like I am, by its failure to resolve the crisis at the Western Wall and the question of the status of women in religious spaces. It doesn’t seem bothered, like I am, by the economic suffering that is the hidden underbelly of contemporary Israeli life - where nearly 22% of Israelis live below the poverty line, the highest percentage in the civilized world. And the government doesn’t seem bothered, like I am, by its own role in preventing non-Orthodox forms of Judaism, like our own Reform Judaism, from being legitimized in the Jewish State.
So, I feel torn about what to do.
Maybe you’ve felt it in your own relationships. You have a person that means so much to you. You have a history with them. Maybe you share parents together, or children together. They mean a lot to you. But sometimes they disappoint you.
That’s where things stand between me and the State of Israel.
In relationships, whether they are between us and God, between us and other people, or between us and a country: we always have choices…and one of them is to walk away.
So I suppose I could walk away from Israel…either out of protest or disinterest. What’s happening over there has nothing to do with me, I could say. Why should I allow myself to be bothered by what goes on there? I don’t have any need to be in relationship with Israel, her people, or the government. That’s a choice that I have.
Statistically speaking, that seems to be the choice than an increasing number of American Jews are making.
The 2013 Pew Study documents a continuing decline in American Jewish engagement with Israel, particularly among my peers and those younger, and particularly among Jews who are less religiously observant.
So, I could walk away.
But I can’t do that. I am a proud Zionist. I believe in the right of the Jewish People to have a state of our own with every fiber in my body. It is part of my philosophical essence. So: walking away, and not caring about Israel or what goes on there is not an option for me.
There’s another option.
I could butt out. This doesn’t have to be my business, some would say. I’m not an Israeli citizen. I don’t get to vote. Why should I lose sleep over what Israel does one way or the other? I should concentrate on helping Israel by visiting, by donating to Israeli philanthropies, and by planting a few trees each year there. And I should leave it at that.
For better or worse: my family will tell you that I’m not so good at letting things go like that either.
My feelings about Israel, and about its current direction, are strong. How can I be true to myself, and the values that I hold dear, and not speak out?
As it turns out, Judaism offers a third path. And it’s one that feels particularly relevant to consider on this day of Yom Kippur.
Our tradition has a concept called tokekhah - the notion that we are obligated in particular situations to rebuke one whom we love.
The idea comes from Leviticus 19, which we will read later this afternoon. There the Torah notes:
לֹֽא־תִשְׂנָ֥א אֶת־אָחִ֖יךָ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ
You shall not hate your loved ones in your heart.
הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִ֙יחַ֙ אֶת־עֲמִיתֶ֔ךָ וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֥א עָלָ֖יו חֵֽטְא׃
Reprove your kinsmen, and in doing so you shall incur no guilt because of them.
The Biblical Author argues that we share a measure of responsibility for the choices and actions of the ones we love.
Nachmanides, of 13th century Spain, read this verse and concluded that if we didn’t reprove the ones we were closest to, then the guilt of their wrongdoing falls to us as well.
I’m not sure I agree with such a literal reading. But I do affirm the verse’s more general observation about relationships, and the unique position of influence that we are in when we relate to another. We can turn to the one that we care about, and give them important feedback which we hope they’ll be able to hear, out of the patient faith that they will grow in to better versions of themselves.
In order to be successful at authentic Jewish rebuke, or tokekha, our aim must always be to lift up, and never to embarrass. Offering tokekha is not the same as criticizing someone or belittling them. This is about humbly expressing moral leadership in the hopes of bringing about positive change in the ones we care about most.
The authoritative Jewish law code Shulchan Aruch, from 16th century Israel, cautions us that a rebuke should only be offered if there is a reasonable chance that the person or entity hearing the feedback will be responsive and can change. If the rebuke is guaranteed to be disregarded, then it is better to be silent, so that the one who transgresses does so unknowingly rather than deliberately.
But today, on Yom Kippur, we embrace the belief that virtually everyone and everything has the capacity to change for the better. We are not fated to be stuck as we are at this moment, and neither are our friends and neighbors. Everyone has the capacity to change. Everyone has the capacity to grow.
And so, I offer these words this morning. Not out of the desire to diminish or embarrass the Jewish State. But to humbly offer my hope that she can do better in the coming year…that she can inch ever closer to the age-old dream that Israel might be an or la’goyim - a light unto the nations: a model of how a government and a people might build a society together, rooted in justice and compassion.
The noted Israeli author, and outspoken justice advocate, Amos Oz once wrote: “Love is a curious mixture of opposites, a blend of extreme selfishness and total devotion. A paradox! Besides which, love, everybody is always talking about love, love, but love isn't something you choose, you catch it” Oz writes, like you catch “a disease.”
A disease, I think he means, not in the sense that it can hurt you, but in the sense that once you get touched by it, it becomes a permanent part of you - impossible to fully rid yourself of, even if you try.
This is my prayer for us in the year ahead.
May we all have someone or something - a person, a country, an idea - that we are privileged to love passionately.
May we all love that someone or something so intensely that we can’t walk away when their imperfections get in the way of our relationship with them. And may we all love that someone or something so passionately that we have faith that they’re able to grow and change for the better.
This year, may we all choose the path of tokekha, of gentle, loving, and respectful admonition. Embrace the ones you care about and express your support for them by gently guiding them toward a path of improvement.
Do it for the sake of your relationship with the people and countries that matter most to you. And do it for the sake of our entire world, whose future depends on it. For the Talmud notes: “As long as there are those who gently and lovingly rebuke one another, then there shall be satisfaction, goodness, and blessing in the world, as the Book of Proverbs affirms: To them that lovingly rebuke shall be delight, and a good blessing shall come upon them.”
May that sense of blessing come to rest on us, on our country, on the State of Israel, and the entire world. And let us say: Amein.