Rosh Ha-Shanah Evening, 5775


SEPTEMBER 24, 2014  



“So long as within the inmost heart a Jewish spirit sings, so long as the eye looks eastward, gazing toward Zion, our hope is not lost – the hope of two thousand years:  to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

These words, I hope, are as familiar to you as “The Star Spangled Banner.”  They are the words of the Israeli National Anthem, “Ha-Tikvah (The Hope).”  The lyrics of the anthem are based upon the nine-stanza poem “Tikvateinu (Our Hope),” written in the late 1800s by Naphtali Herz Imber.          

Imber’s poem and the national anthem itself beautifully describe the almost 2,000-year wait to return to the Land of Israel, to freely live in the land of our ancestors.

This Jewish claim to the Holy Land dates back to the Bible.  In the Book of Genesis, God commands Abraham:  “Go forth from your native land to the land that I will show you…I will give this land to you and your offspring.” [12:1]  Reference to this covenant between God and the Israelites is found many times in the Tanakh (Jewish Bible).  In fact, I found a list — on a Christian website no less! — of 168 references in the Jewish Bible to the Israelites being given this Land by God – and twice in the Christian New Testament! [] 

Regardless of whether you believe the Tanakh was given by God (and thus believe in its perfection and the teaching that the Land was promised to the Jewish people by God, as is traditionally represented), or as a book written by human beings, there is no doubt that our Bible greatly influenced how we saw our relationship with the Land of Israel throughout the generations. 

In the book Inside Judaism, well-known and well-respected author Rabbi Alfred J. Kolatch, author of The Jewish Book of Why and The New Name Dictionary, amongst many others, notes that

Claim to the Holy Land became ingrained in the Jewish psyche in spite of the fact that for almost two thousand years the land passed through the hands of conqueror after conqueror:  Romans, Christian Byzantines, Crusaders, Egyptian Mamelukes, and others.  During that period there was a minimal Jewish presence in Palestine, especially in the four holy cities:  Jerusalem, Tiberias, Safed, and Hebron.  Jews who lived outside the Holy Land nonetheless expressed a yearning to be there in their daily prayers.  If this did not materialize in the near future, they affirmed, it most certainly would with the coming of the Messiah. [p.266]


Fast-forward to the late 1800’s:  In 1896, Theodor Herzl published his book The Jewish State and in 1897 he convened the First Zionist Conference in Basel, Switzerland.  Twenty years later, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote, in what has become known as the Balfour Declaration, that Britain supported the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine.  In 1920 the League of Nations gave Britain the mandate to govern Palestine.  

In 1947, the United Nations, successor to the League of Nations, drew up borders for a Jewish state and an Arab state in Palestine.  As we know, the Jews accepted the deal, but the Arabs refused it.  Israel declared itself a nation on May 14, 1948 and was immediately attacked by the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.  The State of Israel thus was born in 1948 and Israel has been in war after war since then, the most recent being this summer against Hamas.  (Technically, the situation with Hamas was not declared an official war; Israelis refer to it as Ha-Matzav, the Situation.)  If the Arabs had just said “yes” when offered the deal back in 1948, think of how different things would be today, how many lives would have been saved – on both sides. 

As you know, this summer it was discovered that Hamas had dug tunnels that reached into Israel.  Plans were to bomb Israel on Rosh HaShanah.  Had these tunnels not been discovered, and then destroyed, who knows what the situation would be like today during these High Holy Days, who knows what we would be feeling, who knows what type of sermon I would be delivering today.  I shudder to think how many more lives would have been lost had Israel not had Kippat HaBarzel – the Iron Dome.

In Parashat Nitzavim, which we just read at services this past Shabbat morning, and portions of which Reform Jews read on Yom Kippur morning, it states:

You stand this day, all of you, before your Eternal God – the heads of your tribes, your elders and officers, every one in Israel, men, women, and children, and the strangers in your camp…to enter into the sworn covenant which your Eternal God makes with you this day…And it is not with you alone that I make this sworn covenant:  I make it with those who are standing here with us today before our God, and equally with all who are not here with us today.


See, I have set before you this day life and good, or death and evil…I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day that I have set before you life or death, blessing or curse; choose life, therefore, that you and your descendants may live… [Excerpts from Deuteronomy 29:9-14, 30:11-20, translation from Gates of Repentance, 1996 edition]

As Jews we are taught to value life, not just for Jews, but for all people.   I believe that is why we have such a difficult time understanding what Hamas does.  Rabbi Chuck Diamond of Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh, noted this in his recent commentary on Parashat Re’eh.  Rabbi Diamond notes:

In its recent conflict with Hamas, I believe that Israel trie[d] to do the right thing.  I have great trouble wrapping my understanding around a group that prides itself on its terrorism:  a group, whose charter calls for the eradication of another group of people; a group, who uses its people to protect its fighters and weapons; a group who has such an apparent disregard for its own people’s lives. [Parshat Re’eh 2014, Mekor Chaim]

I understand that not all of us here today agree with the actions of the current Israeli government, just as we do not all agree with the actions of our own American government.  It’s not important whether or not we all agree with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government.  What is important is that we support the State of Israel (Medinat Yisraeil) and its right to exist and have safe borders.  No more should Israelis – of any religion — have to run to shelters, no more should Israel have to go to war to keep its people safe.  As Golda Meir, Israel’s fourth Prime Minister, once said, “We don’t thrive on military acts.  We do them because we have to – and thank God we are efficient.” [“Vogue,” July 1969]  Her words ring true just as much today as when she said them in 1969.

 In my January article for the “Commentary,” I entitled my column “Why We’re Going to Israel.” I began my article by listing five reasons why we were organizing a congregational trip to Israel, although there are plenty more reasons than just five.  The five I listed were: 

  • Because Israel is an amazing country.
  • Because Israel is the place where so many of our stories took place.
  • Because in Israel we can walk down the streets and see Jews and Jewish things wherever we look.
  • Because in Israel the holidays during which stores, offices, and schools close down are Jewish holidays.
  • Because Israel is the Jewish homeland.

As Jews, we are connected to Medinat Yisraeil, the State of Israel. Some of us have family and friends there.  Some of us have traveled there or studied there.  I can’t wait for our congregational trip, which begins a month from now.  I can’t wait to walk where our ancestors walked, to return to Jerusalem where I lived during my first year of rabbinic school, and to see members of my family.

Living outside of Israel may make us feel like there is nothing we can do to help Israel and her citizens.  I know that I felt that way this summer and I’m sure many of you felt this way, too. There are many organizations we can support which support Israel, every day, 24 / 7, but especially during times of conflict.  You may find a partial list of these organizations on the table in the lobby.

I conclude this evening with a prayer written by my colleague, Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel of Hollywood, which he titled “A Prayer for the Jewish New Year”:

May we hold lovingly in our thoughts

those who suffer from tyranny, subjection, cruelty, and injustice,

and work every day towards the alleviation of their suffering.


May we recognize our solidarity

with the stranger, outcast, downtrodden, abused, and deprived,

that no human being be treated as “other,”

that our common humanity weaves us together

in one fabric of mutuality,

one garment of destiny.


May we pursue the Biblical prophet’s vision of peace,

that we might live harmoniously with each other

and side by side,

respecting differences,

cherishing diversity,

with no one exploiting the weak,

each living without fear of the other,

each revering Divinity in every human soul.


May we struggle against institutional injustice,

free those from oppression and contempt,

act with purity of heart and mind,

despising none, defrauding none, hating none,

cherishing all, honoring every child of God, every creature of the earth.


May the Jewish people, the State of Israel, and all peoples

know peace in this New Year,

And may we nurture kindness and love everywhere.


And let us say:  Amen.

Shanah tovah!