Becoming Shomrei Yisrael: Yom Kippur 5775


It was a perfect day at the beach. Early-July, late in the morning. Not too hot, nor too cold; sand stretching off to the horizon, the surf pounding pleasantly at my feet. After an hour of baking on the beach, I ventured into the cool water to play in the waves. First to the toes, then the knees, and then finally I was floating, up and down as the waves crashed over me. Over my shoulder a woman was swimming just a bit further out. I thought of venturing a little deeper like her, but I was getting cold and a bit battered from the waves, so I waded back to the shore.

It was just a matter of seconds as I slogged up to the beach that I noticed the lifeguard grab a float and run past me into the water. Curious, I turned; who is in trouble? The woman who had been just behind me was still riding the waves, but she was caught in a riptide and unable to get to shore. After the first life guard, a second one followed with a line, and then a third guard on shore began to haul all three of them in. No sooner were they on the beach than the guards were diving back in for another swimmer, and then another, and another.

I asked a lifeguard how they knew who was in trouble. She said we look at the faces of the swimmers—the moment they seem to be struggling, we dive in. How fortunate we are when someone else is watching our face, looking for signs of danger, and preparing to help the moment it is needed. We already knew this—after all, we did choose to swim near a lifeguard—but it is still easy to forget our dependence on others for our safety. We like the illusion that we are self-sufficient, that we can court danger with impunity, but the truth is that we depend on one another for our health, our safety, and our very lives.

Until you stop to think about it, you don’t realize just how protected you are. There are guards protecting us at the Seminary gate, and there are NYPD officers on the street, and the Fire Department a few blocks away, all helping to keep us secure. Further away analysts and intelligence agencies are tasked with watching developing threats and acting before innocent civilians can be harmed.

We are protected too by the health care system in this country, for all of its flaws. Just a few blocks from this room is St Luke’s hospital with its emergency room, waiting to help. God forbid anyone would need it, but it is good to know it is there. Farther yet but equally important are the health agencies such as the NIH and the CDC which is tasked with monitoring epidemics and preparing us to respond when, for example, a passenger from Liberia lands in Texas and turns out to be infected with Ebola. We are being protected constantly, without awareness until something goes wrong, a system fails, and we suddenly realize how vulnerable we really are. It takes effort to remember our dependence on others, לזכור, just as it takes effort to remember our loved ones who are not physically present in our lives today. Today, on Yom Kippur, we ask God to remember us for life, לחיים זכרינו and we dedicate ourselves to remembering those who have helped us, honoring them by following their example.

I would like to dedicate this talk to the prior generations of our people who lived in a world with far less protection than we enjoy, and who through courageous and persistent advocacy and action created structures that protect us to this day.

Although we are sitting here in the Western Hemisphere, the truth is that our physical and spiritual safety are both connected to a little patch of real estate in the Middle East. The great medieval poet Yehudah Halevi famously wrote, לבי במזרח ואנכי בסוף מערב, My heart is in the east, but I am in the farthest west. Of course, he couldn’t know back in the 12th century how much farther west there was yet to go, but he did capture the point of long-distance love and longing.

No matter where we are, in the most placid and beautiful of settings, troubling news from Israel gets right to our hearts. That story I just told you about the beach? When I finally got back to my beach towel, my phone was buzzing with alerts from Ha’Aretz, as Israel braced for an incursion into Gaza. I was safe from the riptide, but the tides of violence and hatred in the Middle East were still developing into a terrifying storm.

Indeed, for the entire summer, our hearts remained in the east. Like many of you, I followed the search for the three captive Israeli teens, Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah, זכרונם לברכה, praying for their safety, and grieving when their bodies were finally discovered. That night I happened to be at Camp Ramah in Ojai, CA, and I sat with the young Israeli staff in a room full of yahrzeit candles, singing with them songs of loss and mourning. We did not utter or even hear cries for revenge for their three senseless murders, but of course we were not attuned to a deranged Jewish circle that thought and acted quite differently. Like many of you I was shocked by the evil behavior of three Jewish thugs who murdered the 16 year old Palestinian teen Mohammed Abu Khadeir. After this outrage, Naftali Fraenkel’s family spoke eloquently for Jewish values and the best of the Jewish people. Still in shiva, they issued this statement: “If a young Arab really was murdered for nationalist reasons, this is a horrifying and shocking act. There is no difference between blood and blood. Murder is murder. There is no justification, no pardon and no atonement for murder.”

There is no atonement for murder. Yom Kippur atones for issues we have with God, if we confess and do our best to repent. But when it comes to one another, it’s not God who has to forgive. We need to repair the harm that we do to each other. We need to become our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers. If we have caused others harm, then we owe them restitution and an apology. But that is still setting the bar too low. It will not suffice to avoid harming others. To become worthy of the many blessings bestowed on us, we must become a source of strength and comfort to others. That’s my theme today, so let’s play it out.

Like many of you, this summer, when I would have loved to tune out the world and all of its troubles, I instead became a news addict, subscribing to alerts from Haaretz and YNet as well as the Times. I followed the crisis in the Ukraine, and the malignant expansion of ISIS, as well as racial tensions here in NY and in St Louis over incidents of police brutality. But my attention continued to return to Israel as a tense situation in Gaza became a full-blown battle. Like many of you I was not a disinterested bystander. Our wonderful students were already in Israel for ulpan. I worried about my beloved cousins in Tel Aviv; dear friends in Beer Sheva, and our precious oldest daughter in Jerusalem. You could say I had skin in the game.

Every few hours Talya and I exchanged texts, and we talked through the emotions and the politics of the conflict. She is 19, had girlfriends in the IDF, and they in turn had friends and boyfriends in Gaza. Talya wound up attending the Mt. Herzl funeral of one such friend, Second Lt. Yuval Haiman, 21, ז”ל who was killed by an anti-tank missile on July 17. I read the eulogies for him and many other soldiers, and I looked at their pictures, thinking that these young people were in a sense our extended family. We were in the west, but our heart was in the east. We joined their families in grief. As we will say this afternoon, אלה אזכרה ונפשי עלי אשפחה, “These I recall, and my soul melts with sorrow.”

It is understandable that our first concern was the safety of Israelis, who are often literally our own family and friends. I was daily grateful for the remarkable Iron Dome system, and for the collaboration between Israel and America that made it possible. Yet we also worried about the mounting casualties on the Palestinian side. When we heard that three kids were killed on a Gaza beach, our circle of grief expanded to include these innocents. Most of us realized that Hamas was intentionally placing its weapons in and underneath the homes, schools, hospitals and mosques of its own people, shooting at Israeli homes and daring the IDF to fire back. Hamas has a lot of lives to answer for. Still, a kid is a kid, and blood is blood. Over 1,700 Palestinians were killed in the fighting, nearly 500 of them children. אלה אזכרה ונפשי עלי אשפחה, “These I recall, and my soul melts with sorrow.”

Despite our anxieties about the situation, and the close attention we were paying to every alert, we never considered canceling or truncating our Israel programs. When missiles were flying we delayed our excursions into the countryside. We checked to be sure our students had access to shelters, and we even confirmed our supply of gas masks if God forbid they were needed. But leave Israel? That was never an option.

Why not? It is not that we are oblivious to danger. Two floors above this room is the Matt Eisenfeld and Sara Duker Beit Midrash, named in loving memory of our rabbinical student Matt and his fiancé Sara, who were killed in a terrorist attack in Jerusalem on February 25, 1996. Indeed, we are hosting a book talk with Mike Kelly this November 19 on his new book that explores this terrorist attack, and we will be rededicating our Beit Midrash in its new location in memory of Matt and Sara at that time. You are of course invited. We grieve for these two scholarly, compassionate and promising young people. And we honor their memory by following their example of courage and dedication. אלה אזכרה ונפשי עלי אשפחה, “These I recall, and my soul melts with sorrow.”

We are aware of the dangers that Israel faces, and we know that standing with Israel and in Israel is at times dangerous. But JTS is an institution dedicated to training Jewish leadership. And in times of danger, leaders do not run away. They engage more deeply, asking always what difference can I make? What are the unique opportunities that I have to influence others and make things better? At JTS we know that to make a difference we have to be educated and we have to be engaged. And so we are intensifying our Israel engagement year by year.

I am incredibly proud of our students and of our program in Israel. The rabbinical school has a full year program based in Jerusalem, beginning with a summer ulpan, and continuing with experiential and academic studies around the country. Right now our students are spending Yom Kippur at Kibbutz Hannaton, a beautiful Kibbutz affiliated with the Masorti movement in the Galil. They are not ignoring the conflict. They are hearing from voices across the entire spectrum, from settlers to peace activists, from Jews and from Arabs. Two weeks ago they visited Hebron and spoke with residents of that conflicted town who would never speak to one another. We have placed Israel at the center of our program for many years, and we spend a great deal of our time, energy and resources to make this program truly outstanding.

Why? Wouldn’t it be cheaper, simpler and safer to keep our students in NY? Perhaps, but that would be to miss the point. We are training Jewish leaders in all five of our schools. Our students need to experience the joy and the anxiety of Israel; her proudest accomplishments and also her most disappointing failures. They need to see the conflict in its context and complexity, so that Israel is neither a fairy tale knight in shining armor, nor a dehumanized pariah. Israel is a country that needs to protect all of its residents, Jewish and Arab, and Israel needs our help. This is not a matter of charity, but of mutual obligation. A vibrant and secure Jewish life in the diaspora depends to a great deal on a vibrant and secure State of Israel. And the reverse is true as well. Israel depends to a great deal on us. What can we offer? How can we become guardians, shomrim, for our brothers and sisters?

We are responsible for the physical safety of our people; we are responsible for the spiritual safety of our people; and we are responsible to devote our resources—physical, financial and spiritual—to creating the conditions for peace and justice for our people, and for all people.

How do we work to protect the physical safety of our people? By being alert and vigilant. The ADL report on Global Anti-Semitism includes “selected incidents around the world in 2014.” I printed it out—there are seven pages in fine print from Argentina to New Zealand. It’s shocking to read because we just don’t feel such hatred here. There is a great difference between the American experience and that in other countries. Anti-Semitic attitudes in some countries such as France have shot way up. An ADL poll of 53,100 people in 100 countries found that 26% “harbor anti-Semitic attitudes and believe in a majority of the traditional anti-Jewish stereotypes we tested.” Notably, the questions were not about Israeli politics, but about Jewish power and influence.

Although we feel reasonably safe here in America, we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that anti-Semitic attitudes are of no concern. A healthy response to such hatred, it seems to me, is to build bridges with people of other communities, address any obnoxious behaviors among our own people, work assiduously for social justice for all people—and also be willing to identify and confront hateful attitudes towards Jews whenever they are heard.

Caring for the physical safety of our people also means be willing and able to enter challenging conversations. We need to educate ourselves about military ethics, perhaps by attending the November 20 dialogue here at JTS between Chancellor Eisen and Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal, who wrote the IDF’s code. Our students need to learn how to convene such conversations within the Jewish community and beyond it—and we will be providing such training this spring at JTS. On the subways they tell us, “if you see something, say something.” This is true for us as Jews too—if you see something that is troubling, then don’t turn away. Engage yourself and others. Become a shomeir Yisrael, a guardian of your people, both without and within.

Finally, we need to believe and to act like these imperatives are not for our benefit alone. If we care for Israel, it is not only because we care about our fellow Jews, but because we want all people to live free in their land. That message is undermined when we ignore the needs of others. I don’t for a minute imagine that caving into Hamas demands will be good for either the Palestinians or the Jews. We see that the Arab world is not eager for the most part to live under the rule of fundamentalists. We see that 3 million Syrians are displaced by civil war, and we know that their suffering is human suffering, and is ultimately our issue too. Israel cannot solve the internal problems of its neighbors, but it can set a good example by creating a consistently democratic society that is scrupulous about human rights and the needs of minorities. Given the difficult circumstances that it has faced since day one, it has much to be proud of, but we can help Israel to do even better. This is also part of being a shomeir Yisrael.

The early Zionists were somewhat naïve about how they would be received by the local Arab population. Influenced by socialism, and enamored with their own university educations, they assumed the Arab peasants would rebel against their absentee landlords in Damascus and Beirut, and make common cause with the new Jewish farmers, with their knowledge of agronomics. It didn’t work out that way. As Ari Shavit writes in his remarkable portrait, My Promised Land, they saw what they wanted to see, and they missed out on a lot inconvenient truths.

It’s time to look with clear eyes. Things are changing rapidly in the Middle East. While Israel is still condemned for its overwhelming military response to Hamas, and for its continued construction of settlements, it has also built stable relationships with Egypt and Jordan. If it could dedicate serious resources to improving the rights and conditions of Arab Israelis, and could move toward either enfranchising the West Bank Arabs or making them truly autonomous, perhaps something like peace could yet develop.

My point is not to play the diplomat. I am no such thing. But just as I think it is our obligation to study climate science, so too must we be attuned to danger and opportunities facing Israel, engaged in supporting solutions, and never allowing ourselves to turn away in despair.

We live in an interconnected world. Yehudah Halevi said it best, “my heart is in the east, but I am in the farthest west.” That which affects us in Israel affects us in New York, and vice versa. We American Jews benefit in many ways from the independence and strength of Israel. Sometimes it seems like we are the swimmers, and they are the guards, and other times the roles are reversed. Each side likes to think that it is protecting the other, and that is just fine with me. We all need to become guardians of the physical and spiritual success of the other, just as the high priest was tasked with praying for the safety of his household and all of Israel. Today we need to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, a mamlekhet kohanim v’goy kadosh.

Last week I said that Rosh HaShanah is the most universal of Jewish holidays. In contrast, I think Yom Kippur is our most tribal day. True, repentance is a universal concern, but we Jews do it differently. We focus on a particular place, the Temple, on a particular person, the priest, and on a particular time, this day of Atonement. We recall particular rituals, and we remember particular people, our people who gave us life and taught us how to live.

Today let us honor their memory by taking responsibility for the Jewish future. Let us each become a shomeir Yisrael, a guardian of the safety, the integrity and the goodness of our people, in covenant with God. Like a lifeguard watching the face of swimmers, alert for signs of danger, let us be vigilant in protecting the physical and spiritual security of our people everywhere.

Shomeir Yisrael, sh’mor she’erit Yisrael. Guardian of Israel, guard us, the remnant of Israel. Make us the guardians of the memory of our ancestors, of the safety of our brothers and sisters, and teach us to represent your goodness and love to all who live.