PARSHAT MISHPATIM
February 14, 2015 | 25 Shevat 5775

Earlier this week a group of us took a hike up Stone Mountain.

We were in search of God.

And sure enough, we found God there.

God saw us, and we saw God – at least we saw God’s feet.

Wow!  Incredible!

The whole scene was unbelievable.  It’s hard for me to describe it now.

I just remember seeing a sapphire-paved road under God’s feet!

We were so blown away! We had a picnic there, right there on Stone Mountain, with God!

Then, well, then we went home.

You believe me, don’t you?  After all, some years ago, you believed me when I told you about my Norwegian relatives.

“Sure, Rabbi Sandler is from Minnesota.  He probably does have Scandinavian relatives.”

What?  You don’t believe me when I tell you that I saw God at Stone Mountain earlier this week?

Well, if you don’t believe me, then why do you think the version of that story that appears in today’s Torah Reading regarding the seventy elders who joined Moses and others on Mt. Sinai is anymore believable?!

Just because it appears in the Torah?

Take a look at that story in Exodus chapter 24, and you will realize that the notion of Israelites seeing God’s feet and then essentially having a party comes out of nowhere.

The narrative, I think, says more about those men and how they viewed their importance than it does about a vision of God.

Look at the story.

God placed bounds on these elders who seem to have gone beyond the limits that God had established for them.

And, in response, what does God do when these men supposedly see God?  Absolutely nothing.

It doesn’t add up…which is why I am inclined to think these men only imagined they saw God…they saw something that wasn’t there to be seen.

Regrettably, this reading of this unique story in today’s Torah reading provides me with a way to understand what is now unfolding as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to address a joint session of the United States Congress on March 3rd.

Speaker of the House Boehner and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are seeing things – opportunities they think – that aren’t really there.

As a result, their actions appear to be causing damage to the U.S. – Israel relationship at least in the short term.

That possibility ought to greatly concern us.

For those of you who may not know what I am talking about, here is the basic story:

Speaker of the House John Boehner invited the Prime Minister to address Congress on Iran, the threat it poses to the world if it gains nuclear weapons capability and what Congress must now do to help prevent that possibility.

Prime Minister Netanyahu accepted the invitation.

Neither the offer nor its acceptance occurred with the U.S. Administration’s knowledge.

Both the White House and the State Department have spoken out against this breach of normative diplomatic protocol.

President Obama has announced that he will not meet with the Prime Minister when he is here, a mere two weeks prior to the Israeli Knesset elections.

Vice-President Biden has announced that he will be out of the country, and a growing number of Democratic members of Congress have announced they will not attend Mr. Netanyahu’s address to Congress.

Do you remember Laurel and Hardy?

Oliver Hardy used to say to Stan Laurel, “Well, there’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”

Well, there’s a “fine mess” in the making and, as March 3rd approaches, it will only become more difficult to clean it up.

Like the seventy elders who thought they saw something on Mt. Sinai that they could never glimpse, I believe the Speaker of the House and the Israeli Prime Minister think they see something – again, an opportunity – that really isn’t there.

Some people believe that both of these elected officials are motivated by political considerations—Mr. Boehner by a desire to assert the Republican majority in Congress and embarrass the President; Mr. Netanyahu by a need to appear strong as Israelis prepare to vote in Knesset elections on March 17th.

But let’s give both Speaker Boehner and Prime Minister Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt.

Let’s say that both of them genuinely believe the Prime Minister’s address to Congress could be decisive and play a role in convincing Congress to pass tough Iran sanctions legislation if negotiations with the Iranians fail.

Anyone who has followed this issue over the last two years must readily recognize that the Prime Minister’s words, no matter how accurate and convincing, are probably unnecessary because Congress has been favorably disposed not just once but twice toward passing such legislation…until President Obama announced he would veto it if it passed.

Nothing has changed, and if the Prime Minister thinks his congressional address will embolden Democrats to override a potential presidential veto, he is mistaken.

Both he and Speaker Boehner are seeing something that isn’t really there.

Unfortunately, the situation is worse than that; the mess gets messier.

Consider what Prime Minister Netanyahu stands poised to do:

  1. He intends to ignore U.S. diplomatic protocol and the President’s wishes.
  2. He plans, effectively if not in reality, to publicly lobby the U.S. Congress against the Administration’s position on Iran.
  3. And he intends to do all of this, again in the most public fashion, because, he has implied, he speaks for all American Jews.

Let me be clear.

I believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s fears concerning a nuclear Iran are well-founded.

I believe that President Obama has badly mishandled this negotiation with Iran, and I fear that an agreement with Iran which is rooted in nuclear weapons containment and not nuclear weaponsprevention may fail.

I believe that Mr. Netanyahu can speak truth to power in the strongest terms…but only through proper diplomatic channels;

not in an address to Congress!

It never behooves Israel and the U.S. to air their differences in public, but now those differences are on full display.

And the mess gets even messier.

To date, Speaker Boehner’s and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s actions have contributed only to a situation that should never ever occur –

At least in the short term, the State of Israel has become a wedge issue in the halls of Congress as legislators publicly announce their intentions not to attend the Netanyahu address on March 3rd.

Within a legislative body that has been utterly divided by partisanship, Israel’s well-being has stood out in Congress as one of the very few issues that consistently receives overwhelming bipartisan support.

But now Americans who have little understanding of the subtleties here will look at Congressmen like our own John Lewis, a man who has consistently supported the State of Israel throughout his long and distinguished career, and when they see he is absent on March 3rd will ask, “Is he really pro-Israel?”

Listen to this statement from Matt Brooks, Executive Director of the Republican Jewish Coalition:

“This is, I think a critical visit by the Prime Minister.  If these Democrats would rather put partisan politics ahead of principle and walk out on the Prime Minister of Israel, then we have an obligation to make that known.”

It is understandable that the professional head of a politically-partisan organization would make such a statement.

But it troubles me that Mr. Brooks is prepared to use Israel as a wedge for partisan gain at the potential expense of the U.S. – Israel relationship.

Lest any of you think differently, I would say exactly the same thing if Matt Brooks was the head of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Our elected leaders in Washington, D.C. and Jerusalem need to stop seeing things that aren’t really there.

They need to reaffirm a transcendent value – namely, the unbreakable bonds of the U.S. – Israel relationship.

President Obama, Speaker of the House Boehner and Prime Minister Netanyahu need to be quickly guided back to the “same page.”

Publicly, they need to project understanding and, hopefully, mutual agreement even if, privately within appropriate diplomatic channels, they disagree.

And they need to do so now!

Ken Toltz is a former AIPAC professional.  Today he is a businessman living in Colorado.

Earlier this week he wrote a blog for the Times of Israel.com website as if he were speaking for AIPAC and sharing a press release.

In part, this is what Mr. Toltz wrote:

“We are calling upon the Speaker of the House, Majority Leader of the Senate and President Obama to put a stop to this perception (of negativity and potential damage to bipartisan support for Israel) by finding a mutually agreeable accommodation.  This is what the American people deserve, this is what the P5+1 negotiators deserve, and this is what the Government of Israel deserves.

It will never be acceptable if our relationship of support for Israel becomes cheapened and denigrated by partisanship or political point -scoring.  Now is the best time to end that perception by finding common ground.”

Ken Toltz’s words ring true.

They provide wise and necessary direction today.

I pray they will be heeded.

Friends—

This sermon is different than any other sermon I have delivered in nearly thirty-two years.

It was also one of the more difficult ones to write, and its content and my desire to assure that I shared it with you exactly as I wrote it is why I am standing here today and not in the center of the bimah without notes as I usually do.

It is unusual for me to speak on political or diplomatic issues in ways that aren’t rooted in my understanding of Jewish tradition.

I have never publicly criticized an Israeli prime minister…until today.

So why now?

Because I know that many passionate lovers of Israel, like me, are deeply troubled by what is unfolding as March 3rd approaches.

President Obama can barely disguise his antipathy toward Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Speaker Boehner seeks to deflect any responsibility for this diplomatic debacle.

And Prime Minister Netanyahu mistakenly feels obligated to repeatedly tell us why he must speak to Congress on March 3rd, implying that he speaks for all of us in doing so.

We can see that it is all heading in the wrong direction as concerns a strong U.S. – Israel relationship, even if only in the short term, and we feel compelled not to remain silent.

Friends – In the simple words of Psalm 122 – “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem…”

…to which I add – And pray for wisdom both there and in Washington D.C.

Shabbat Shalom.