Sermon – Acharei Mot / Kedoshim
10 Iyyar 5777  |  May 6, 2017
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

The High Holidays occurred earlier this week …. and most of us missed them.

Oh – oh!

The one time we’re all in shul… and most of us missed them.

Not those High Holidays!

You can still plan to attend services on those High Holidays beginning in mid-September.

But not the Israeli High Holidays.  They are over for another year.

That’s what Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Hartman Institute in Israel calls these days that began this past Sunday evening and concluded on Tuesday evening.

Every single Israeli citizen was aware of them and touched by them in some manner.

And many of us, perhaps even most of us, weren’t even aware of them.

The Israeli High Holidays – Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut.

Yom Hazikaron is Israel’s Memorial Day that honors the memory of the more than 23,000 thousand Israeli soldiers who gave their lives for the creation and well-being of the State of Israel, and Yom Haatzmaut is the anniversary of the founding of the state…this year the 69th anniversary.

I understand our lack of awareness.

The truth is that many of us here are proud Jews, but for some of us Israel plays a minor role in our Jewish identity…maybe none.

Studies show that the number of American Jews who attach any level of personal meaning and significance to Israel is diminishing.

Now, if your interest in the State of Israel and your sense of connection to it is no different than your interest in and connection to any other foreign country, you are entitled to those views and feelings – no question!

And if you haven’t done so already, let me suggest you close your eyes now and rest…

because I want to speak to the rest of us….

I want to speak to those of us who care about Israel, but who simply missed Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut because we were unaware of their occurrence.

I think that is probably many of us here.

I want to speak to those of us who care deeply about Israel and who may have taken note of these two days, but who are disgusted or pained by the rancorous expression of views about Israel that have made the Jewish State what some now call “the third rail” of the Jewish community… an issue so divisive and dangerous to talk about that many people avoid doing so.

To those who have no special connection with Israel today, I’m sorry if a lack of education or experience with the Land or maybe this issue of Jewish division over Israel has contributed to your feelings.

You are missing out on a relationship with a place that is often a source of pride, a unique place of natural, organic Jewish life … and yes, also a place that infuriates some number of us from time to time because we love Israel and are troubled and angered by the decisions its leadership sometimes takes.

Each year, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut provide us with a welcome respite – a time to set aside our uneasiness, our anger and our deep divisions – first to mourn as best we can with Israel’s bereaved families and then to revel in the wonder that is still the State of Israel.

But to those who deeply care about Israel and its well-being, the Israeli High Holidays earlier this week also provide us with an opportunity not unlike what we are supposed to do as those other High Holidays approach.

First – Chesbon Hanefesh – We are asked to take account of our words and actions vis-à-vis the State of Israel.

Then, if necessary, Teshuva – We are asked, upon reflection and realization of the need to change, to alter our behaviors.

If we could emerge from these recent special days with an understanding of our own wrongdoing – of how we sometimes insult those who view Israel and its leadership’s decisions different than we do, even to the point of outright rejection of any possible validity of their views – we would contribute mightily to Jewish communal life today.

And when it is not our own wrongdoing in that regard, but that of others; when we see others who belittle those whose views about Israel differ from their own – It is time to emerge from our disgusted or embarrassed silence.

Let’s begin with an understanding of Israel and its impact on world Jewry that all of us ought to grasp.

In a Times of column this week, Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, made this simple, but true, statement:

“Israel taught me to imagine and build the Jewish future out of hope and pride rather than fear.”

If you are younger than me, you have probably given little thought to living in fear.

I’m sorry; I can’t speak to the Canadian experience.

However, for the past fifty years in the United States, incidents that would lead to real fear among Jews were unlikely … ironically until recent months.

It used to be different.

Talk to those who lived here in Atlanta when the Temple was bombed in 1958, and ask them about the fear factor for Jews.

Outside this country, specifically in the former Soviet Union well into the 60’s and beyond, life was dark for Jews who expressed Jewish identity.

But hope and pride arose.

In some places, they burst forth.

What changed this picture for Jews in the U.S., in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere?

It largely began with Israel’s smashing triumph in the Six Day War nearly fifty years ago.

The outcomes of that victory were far – reaching.

Nearly fifty years later some of them have become troubling.

The quickly – approaching 50th anniversary next month ought to be a time for serious reflection and discussion.

But let us not lose sight of what was the very first outcome outside Israel of that military victory.

Pride in Israel.

The new, strong Jew stood tall.

Kippot that were confined to the religious precincts of the synagogue now popped up on the streets of major American Jewish communities.

Self-confidence within the American Jewish community found growing political expression.

And in the former Soviet Union, even when days remained dark in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, hope diminished the darkness and ultimately triumphed.

Some of you, I imagine, remember the images of Soviet Jews dancing outside the synagogue in Moscow on Simchat Torah in the presence of then Israeli Ambassador Golda Meir, b”m.

It was a scene repeated on the holiday for a number of years.

All because of Israel – the founding of the state, the can-do attitude of the chalutzim pioneers and the triumphs against all odds on the battlefield and in the desert taught us to build Jewish futures rooted in hope; not fear.

I hope all of us can appreciate that and remember it in those times when Israel’s leadership disappoints or angers us.

As for those people who feel that their views on Israel and its leadership are the only valid views and belittle others who feel differently or who question other’s love for Israel because of those different views – we who care about Israel must call out these people and forthrightly reject their actions.

It is time to insist not upon agreement, but upon mutual respect and civility.

That is the very least that Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut ask of us today who live outside the Land – to have a relationship with the State of Israel that is rooted in respect for, if not agreement with, those whose views are not our own.

I hope you will agree that these “Israeli High Holidays” ask even more of us and, in turn, can enrich our lives as Jews.

All of us, whether we are Shabbat regulars or we are here to celebrate with Olivia and her family, have choices to make –

What part will the State of Israel play in our lives?

Will we share a relationship, one of love and caring, or will it be otherwise?

Next year, God-willing, Olivia and her Epstein School classmates will spend nearly three weeks in Israel.

I pray that time will help them to develop a strong connection with Israel – with the Land and its people.

And as for us who are a bit older than Olivia and her friends, I pray for a fuller recognition of how the State of Israel has enabled us in the United States, in Canada and elsewhere outside the Land to live in hope.

May we live in that appreciation, even when we are troubled.

Shabbat Shalom.