KOL NIDREI SERMON
OCTOBER 11, 2016
RABBI AMY B. BIGMAN
At the end of this month, it will have been two years since our congregation joined with Temple Sinai in Toronto for a trip to Israel. My classmate and friend, Rabbi Michael Dolgin, along with our tour guide-educator Zvi Levran, put together a wonderful trip. You may remember that on the first Shabbat home I noted that I was anxious already to make a return trip to Israel. Indeed, I’ve been trying to figure out a way back there ever since!
The parashah that we will read at tomorrow morning’s Reform worship service comes from Parashat Nitzavim, which was the portion we read a few weeks ago, from near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy. This Torah portion is always read in all synagogues just before the High Holy Days and for Reform Jews, as I mentioned, we read portions of it again on this holiest of days. One of the reasons it is read at this time of year is because the Hebrew root “shuv,” meaning “to turn” or “to return” is found seven times in verses 1-10 of Chapter 30 in the Book of Deuteronomy. The Hebrew root “shuv” is also the root of the word “teshuvah,” which we usually translate as “repentance,” as in “Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah,” the Ten Days of Repentance.
The first five verses of the thirtieth chapter of Deuteronomy state:
When all these things befall you – the blessing and the curse that I have set before you – and you take [v’hasheivota] them to heart amidst the various nations to which the Lord your God has banished you, and you return [v’shav’ta] to the Lord your God, and you and your children heed [God’s] command with all your heart and soul, just as I enjoin upon you this day, then the Lord your God will restore [v’shav] your fortunes and
take you back in love. [God] will bring you together again [v’shav] from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the Lord your God will gather you, from there [God] will fetch you. And the Lord your God will bring you to the land that your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and [God] will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your fathers. [30:1-5]
Rabbi Audrey Korotkin, of Temple Beth Israel in Altoona, Pennsylvania, shared the teaching of Rabbi Meir Simhah ha-Kohen of Dvinsk (late 19th century Russia) in her commentary on this portion, titled “A Jew is a Jew, No Matter How Far”:
Why does [verse 3] repeat the word ‘return’ [v’shav] twice? The reason is that there are two types of exile and two types of people in exile. ‘The Lord will return your captivity’ refers to those who are in exile and who feel it constantly, and who long to return to Eretz Yisrael. Those will be the first ones who are returned to Eretz Yisrael. However, ‘[God] will have compassion upon you, and will return and gather you from among all the nations’ refers to those Jews who have made their peace with their exile, and who feel quite comfortable where they are. They, too, will be returned to our land.
…Today, too, there are Diaspora Jews who feel endangered and who long for the relative safety of Eretz Yisrael… Yet half the world’s Jewish population still resides outside of Israel — most in North America, where we find life safe and comfortable. We take inspiration and enrichment not only from Israel, but also from two thousand years of the Diaspora’s cultural, religious, and scientific achievements.
[Rabbi Korotkin continues:] Rabbi Meir Simhah wrote that we, too, “will be returned to our land.” But must that mean only aliyah? Can we not legitimately support Israel, spend time in Israel, embrace the Zionist cause, but live elsewhere? Reform Judaism’s own statement of support for aliyah begins with the sentence: “Progressive Judaism believes that Jews can live fulfilling and meaningful lives in any part of the world.”4 Perhaps the translation of our verses found in [the Reform Movement’s chumash or Torah commentary] The Torah: A Modern Commentary is closer to the truth. After all: God will “bring us together,” imbuing us with a sense of peoplehood no matter where we are and providing a shield against those who may disparage Diaspora Jews for our choices.
4. “Aliyah—Immigration to Israel,” http://www.reformjudaism.org/aliyah-immigration-israel
This concept of returning to the Land is a difficult one for American Jews. After all, as Rabbi Korotkin notes, we Jews tend to live comfortably in this country. The United States was founded by people who came here to live life according to their own religions and to their own interpretations of those religions. Due to this religious freedom, Jews have flourished in this country.
As much as we may love Israel, I have to admit that some of the things that the Israeli government has done – or not done – in giving non-Orthodox Jews the same rights and privileges as the Orthodox have made it difficult to be fully supportive.
And yet – we must be just that: supporters of Israel. We must support its right to exist, its right to have safe borders, its right to be a haven for Jews from around the world who need or want a safe place to live as Jews. We must continue to support the Israel Religious Action Center, the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and other organizations that support and fight for the rights of non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews in the State of Israel.
In August, Rabbi Josh Weinberg and Rabbi John Rosove, the President and Chair of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America, respectively, and Gideon Aronoff and Ken Bob, the CEO and National President of Ameinu (Our People)*, respectively, wrote an article titled “Why Progressive Jews Mustn’t Give Up on Zionism.” It reads, in part:
…We affirm progressive Zionist values. And those values mandate activism in order to ensure that Israel is both a democracy and the national home of the Jewish people.
…Since its establishment, Israel has meant many things to many people: a haven from persecution, a catalyst for Jewish renewal and a place where the rhythms of civic life are Jewish rhythms. We regard the State of Israel as the Jewish people’s laboratory of Jewish ethical living, one that has seen unparalleled achievements and successes, as well as considerable deficiencies and failures. We regard the founding of the state as a consummate historic opportunity, to test the efficacy of Jewish ethical values, institutions and the diversity of Jewish peoplehood all while holding onto political power as a sovereign state.
…Diaspora Jewry is a partner in assuring Israel’s viability as a democracy and a Jewish state, and its security as a sovereign nation. Our role in the Diaspora is different than that of Israeli citizens, but it is no less important. Indeed, our two centers need each other’s wisdom and support.
…We would like to suggest an unconditional relationship to Israel. That means, like family, when we see troubling trends and abhorrent behavior, rather than disavow the entire enterprise, we prefer to roll up our sleeves and get more involved.
Similarly, Israeli Jews and Diaspora Zionists must actively engage non-Jewish Israelis to address the real tensions within Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state. Making Israel both more democratic and more Jewish is a serious challenge, but it is the essential struggle of Zionism…
Ultimately, our vision of progressive Zionism — which is embodied in the Israeli Declaration of Independence and the Zionist movement’s Jerusalem Program — is one grounded in hope and action. And we will continue to strive to fulfill this vision to ensure a just, secure and peaceful future for all Israelis, and an Israel that can be a dynamic inspiration to Jews around the world. [August 3, 2016]
As we begin our fast this evening, as we examine and make amends for our negative deeds of this past year, as we resolve to do better this new year, may we also resolve to support the State of Israel, despite what some may consider its flaws. No person and no country are perfect. That’s our struggle, especially at this time of year: figuring out how to do better. We are Yisraeil: the one who struggles with God.
Oseh shalom bimromav, Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol Yisraeil, v’al kol yoshvei teivel — May this new year bring peace to us, to the State of Israel, to the People of Israel around the world, and to all peoples of the world, and let us say: Amen.
* “a national community of progressive Jews in North America which mobilizes Jews who seek opportunities to foster social and economic justice both in Israel and in North America”