Muswell Hill Synagogue
Metzora + HaGadol 19/20 April 7.49pm 8.56pm

Rosh Hashana Sermon Day 2 5773

I would like to tell you all about a love of mine. A love maybe not as strong as that for my wife, my children, my parents. But a love that is strong nevertheless. It is a love that can give me immense joy, it is a love that can give me sadness and mourning. It is a love that can give me longing. It is the love for the Land of Israel. I lived there for seven years, was married there, studied there. I had the merit to visit many of the holy places of the land of Israel. And I along with Elisheva suffered also for the death of those who lived in the Land. It is a love I felt from childhood. It strengthened when I went to Israel at 15 years old and deepened even more when I went while at University. But when I spent a number of years learning in yeshiva, I could tour the land while learning Torah – a beautiful combination.

And so now I can admit to feeling longing for Israel. When you live there you are so much in touch with what goes on, learning every political development, ~pgetting to know more how people think. It is much harder outside of course, no matter how much we try. And so we are left to long. We long just like Yehuda HaLevi did in the 12th century in Spain. He was both a physician and writer of Poetry which has been loved and learned since his passing in 1141. He wrote what he called an ‘Ode to Zion’ – here are some of his words:

“Zion, you are doubtless anxious for news of your captives;
they ask after you, they who are the remainder of your flock

From West and East and North and South, from near and far;
bring peace from every side.

And peace is the desire of the captive, who gives his tears
like the dew on the Hermon and yearns for the day they will fall on your hills

I am a mourner who weeps for your poverty and when I dream
of the return I am the violin to your songs.

The last verse was echoed by Naomi Shemer when she wrote ‘Jerusalem of Gold’ in May 1967 when Jews were still not allowed to visit the Old City. We may have returned to the Land of  Israel, but there was still longing for that part of Jerusalem that was so special to us.

And yes we have returned. We are seeing ancient prophecies come true as young and old dance in the streets of Jerusalem. We are allowed to visit the sights where our ancient ancestors were buried.

But as a religious Jew, it is at this point that I need to do what we call today a reality check. And that is to say that the Land of Israel, that ancient value and love of our people, is not equivalent and identical to our modern day love and concern of the State of Israel. The Land and the State are two different things. Of course they overlap in a number of ways. When the Israel Lands Authority oversees excavations of ancient Jewish sights, there is a clear overlap. When the army is needed to protect sights of special interest as part of the Land of Israel they overlap.

But the Land of Israel does not share totally the value set that the State of Israel does. And I think that this is a really important statement to make. I will also tell you why: Because if our Zionism is solely support for the State of Israel and what it does, we will miss out on the value of the Land of Israel and what it actually means to us as a people in terms of its values. On the other hand, if we focus on the Land of Israel in an absolute fashion, we will lose faith in the State. In a world of Redemption, then yes the State and the Land would be one and the same.

Let me make this a bit clearer. To me, the Land of Israel represents a place where the Jewish people can act out the values of the Torah. Now in the present world we live in, this is a complicated prospect. How will Jewish Law move from being applied to individual communities to being applied to the fabric of a State? How will such a State that goes according to Jewish Law regulate a banking system plugged into the international banking system? How will a State run according to Jewish Law treat minority groups from other religions? There is a journal of essays that is produced annually in Hebrew that actually deals with a myriad of such questions. In fact many Rabbis and Chief Rabbis from the Religious Zionist world have written on such topics. When Elisheva and I lived in Israel, Elisheva studied and then worked in Shaarei Tzedek Hospital which was unique in that it worked into its every day running the tenets of jewish medical law. So for instance, trainee nurses had to learn the laws of Shabbat as applied in a hospital ward.

This is the idea that many religious Jews set as an aim – although the thought of its existence today or very soon is quite frightening. And I don’t mean only frightening for secular Jews – but I find it frightening as a religious Jew. There are such deep differences between various religious groups that it would be almost impossible to agree on how to run such a State – we all know: two Jews, three opinions.

So we are where we are. We have a State and we are deeply thankful for it. It came at a dark moment in our History. There is a statement in the Talmud that whenever God brings upon His people hardship, he creates first a cure for the hardship. The example that is brought in the Talmud is Esther, as the cure that solved our planned persecution by Haman and Achashverus. And even although the relationship between the Holocaust and God’s Providence is a difficult one, we may say that we are thankful for the existence of Zionism before the Holocaust so that we could return to reclaim sovereignty in the Land of Israel in an organised way.

And the State of Israel was clear in its Declaration of Independence that it would be a Jewish and Democratic state. Of course both these terms are open to interpretation. But this certainly did not mean Jewish according to Torah Law. There would be room for religious Judaism in Israel of course. There would be concessions to the religious community but there would also be a firm principle that no one would be coerced into doing anything religious.

So here we have it – a State that stands up for the rights of our people to live in protection in the Land of Israel. A Land, which is according to our tradition yearning to be reunited with its people and the Torah. And so these two interlocking perspectives can easily clash. Should buses run or not in the streets of Israel’s towns on Shabbat? The Land of Israel would turn to the State of Israel and say – you must stop running buses on the Holy Day! The State would retort – but my people are not ready, they will not take this! I remember when I lived in Israel a big bust up over a street in Jerusalem called ‘Bar-Ilan’ street. The religious community wanted the street shut for Shabbat. The secular community wanted the opposite. Compromise was impossible.

And yes, both sides have moved to extremes. There is a school of thought within secular Israel that thinks of the State of Israel as a new era, a new development in the History of the Jewish people – Zionist can now replace the term Jew. On the other side, the settler movement and large chunks of the religious Zionist movements are alienating themselves from mainstream Israeli society. Religious Zionism has for too long focussed on the totality and entirety of the Land of Israel. That has seemed to be its sole value. And it has brought up a generation that has lost faith in the State. There have been no reality checks, just holding on to the land at all costs. And this is not my Land of Israel. My Land of Israel is about the Torah, yes. But it is not able to sacrifice the unity of our people. It is not able to give up an opportunity to show the secular world in Israel that halachic Judaism is a real possibility in the modern world. It does not need to sit in the corner quietly and passively. It can be part of the dialogues that are going on now.

And so I can be a religious Jew and stand up for the rights of minorities such as the Bedouin, a people I learned a great deal about on my trip there last year. There may or may not be anything more we could have done, but Zionism and our return to the Land of Israel has made things difficult for the Bedouin community and we need to resolve the issues there sensitively and appropriately.

We need religious thinkers and leader who can think of ways in which our religion can talk to secular Israel and not be so alien to them in the hope that this dialogue creates reciprocal good will.

But I want to turn to you all with a plea. I have laid before you two things – the State of Israel a number of us support in different ways and the Land of Israel with its long and holy history. But today, how many of our children are learning about this history? Are we teaching our children about Herzl, Chibat Tzion, Achad HaAm, Balfour, San Remo, Arab riots, Peel Commission. Would they know the significance of the date 29th November 1947? Would they know about the dates surrounding the Balfour Declaration as to whether there should be a Jewish majority in Israel? The list could go on. Israel cannot be to our children about falafel and shwarma and good holidays. We need to teach them about how the State of Israel came about.

There are a group of youth who are presently in Year 10 and who I taught at Cheder on Sunday mornings in Year 8. I ran a whole term teaching them about Zionism and getting them to debate the big issues. We debated the famous controversial debate as to whether Israel should receive money from the German government in the early 50’s. We simulated negotiations between the Palestinian groups and the Israeli government. And I hope that a group of teenagers will be more confident to understand what they read about Israel, what they hear about Israel and its its recent Historical context.

And once we are aware of our history and understand what is going on – we need, we must also turn to prayer. It was God who gave us this Land – but He can also take it away. And with the radicalisation taking place instead of any Arab Spring and with clear threats existing to the possibility of a two State solution, we have lots to pray for.

What I have said today, friends, goes beyond simply defending Israel against every criticism that might be levelled at the government. We spend a lot of energy on defending. We spend a lot of effort on advocating, on propaganda. But do we think and consider what having a State means for our people? Do we think about what the history of the modern State means for us? Do we attempt to understand why Israel is often criticised? And do we also consider our relationship to the Land of Israel? In my mind if we relate just to the State – and do not listen to the sweet voice of the Land – it would be like having a jewish community without Synagogue services. There would social and welfare structures – but the religious core would not exist.

We are in a relationship with Israel – one full of love, one that has its ups and downs – but it is a serious one and it is long term. Many Rabbis compare the relationship between the Jewish people and Israel as a marriage relationship. And so we have to ask ourselves today – are we in love or not. I know I am.

Shana Tova