Al Kol Eleh – Mature Love – Rabbi Joshua Caruso on Erev Rosh Hashanah 2014

This blog post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, contains the Rosh Hashanah Sermon by Rabbi Joshua Caruso at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in the Contemporary Evening Service. We encourage you to make comments below, and to share this post by email with your friends, or to social media such as Facebook or Twitter, to raise conversation about the important issues raised in these remarks.


AL KOL ELEH   by Naomi Shemer


Al  kol  e-leh,  al  kol e-leh,  shmor  na  li  e-li ha-tov;

Al  ha-d’vash  ve-al  ha-o-kets

Al  ha-mar  ve-ha-ma-tok.

Al  na  ta- a-kor  na- tu-a

Al  tish-kach  et  ha-tik-va.

Ha-shi-ve-ni   ve-a-shu-va  el  ha-a-rets  ha-to-va.

Every bee that brings the honey Needs a sting to be complete And we all must learn to taste the bitter with the sweet.

Chorus: For the sake of all these things, Lord, Let your mercy be complete Bless the sting and bless the honey Bless the bitter and the sweet


This song, “Al Kol Eleh” is a staple for many who have been to Israel. It was written by Naomi Shemer shortly after the Yom Kippur war, and is one of those songs that I associate viscerally with the Holy Land. It was one of the first supremely “Israel” songs I learned as a young man. It’s joyful and sappy all at once. It’s one of the songs that is played when those old videos promoting Israel are shown. You know, the ones showing Israelis dancing the hora together, along with the clips of lush pastures. Even with the sappy tones, it’s hard not to smile. It gushes with joy and pride for the State of Israel. The song conveys a feeling of belonging and connection.

It’s right up there with the feeling of just having landed in Israel from a transcontinental flight, and despite the tired bodies on board, everyone manages to applaud. And the applause is not token – it’s in response to arriving home. I get that very same feeling when I set myself firmly in the middle of the busy shuk – the outdoor market in Jerusalem – and just let the locals push past me – unbothered – as I soak in the air and smells of fresh pita, steaming hot falafel, and spices that intoxicate. Not to mention those sinful chocolate rugelach just out of the oven. Yes, I know – very sappy.

Bless the sting and bless the honey Bless the bitter and the sweet.

This is certainly part of my love song to Israel. Like many of us, I was captured by Israel with the sounds and smells, and tastes of a nation that impossibly came to be. Israel created something out of nothing. Four waves of immigrants from places where we were not welcome accomplished an unprecedented building up of the land, creating a blossoming desert and laying the foundation for industry and economy that would transform the land and the Jews who inhabited it. After the Pogroms of Eastern Europe, Arab violence in Palestine, and the horrors of the Holocaust, the urgency for a Jewish homeland was greater than ever and, in the aftermath of World War II, our dream was finally realized. Our people were as euphoric as if the Third Temple had been rebuilt! In fact, it was the long-awaited marriage of Israel and the Jewish people. A consummation of sorts. The courtship of 2,000 years had finally come to fruition. Love had blossomed.

My time in Israel found that love blossoming in me. I studied Hebrew (an ancient language whispering sweet words to me); I learned the history (I read books, and then walked along stone paths revealing the secrets of the land); I engaged in the culture (singing songs, and dancing in rhythmic circles as I had imagined the pioneers had done); I read poetry (looking out at the Galilee, or the Judean Hills, or the Western Wall, and the words moved me); I worked the land (on kibbutz, waking up at 5a when it was still dark, to be a caretaker for a land that felt like it had always beckoned me); I loved (finding my life partner with whom I shared the discovery of our love for each other and for this land.)

Bless the sting and bless the honey Bless the bitter and the sweet.

As many times as I sang this song, Al Kol Eleh, I never really studied the words. There was so much joy that I had initially missed the inherent message: with every blessing there is a sting, and with every sweetness there is the bitter. This realization enables one to understand Israel in its complexity, a place that not only brings forth joy, but also carries hardships. Where there was once unbridled and innocent love, there is now a love seasoned with the realities of life.

Every bee that brings the honey Needs a sting to be complete And we all must learn to taste the bitter with the sweet.

I am a proud Zionist, a supporter of our Eternal Home, and an Ohev Yisrael – a lover of Israel. However, as the conflict this summer in Gaza grew, I felt sick. As I saw evidence of anti-Semitism awakened in various parts of Europe in response to the conflict, I did not want to believe it. When the media attacks against Israel commenced, I got defensive. Criticism came from all channels, pundits, celebrities and Jews themselves, all condemning Israel’s behavior, but curiously not condemning Hamas. News reports seemed to suggest moral equivalency when talking about the continued fire coming from both Gaza and Israel, but ignored how Israel was provoked, and how cease-fires were predictably broken by Hamas. Numbers of Gazan dead were broadcast in the same news-byte as Israeli causalities, tacitly suggesting that Israelis were killing indiscriminately and were not themselves suffering during this war. How could the world – and even colleagues who I thought I knew – turn on us with such apparent ignorance of the facts? Such a readiness to believe the worst of us?  I felt both under attack as an oppressed Jew, and attacked as a Jew for being the oppressor. It has become painfully clear that Israel is condemned if she chooses to defend her land and her people, but she is rendered exposed and vulnerable if she doesn’t.

With the birth of Israel, the founders of the State of Israel had to figure out how to be a nation in authority. It was a new stage in the maturation of the Zionist experiment. Ironic as it may seem, being in a position of authority has a set of challenges that are arguably graver than being the one oppressed.  Given the backdrop of our long and arduous history, living in our own land, in charge of our own destiny, had always been our dream.  But sharing that land with others who don’t want us there, who have been attacking us since the moment of the declaration of our State, has thrust us into an unfamiliar role.  We are no longer willing to be victims, no matter how much the rest of the world prefers us to remain in that position.  Yet how do we use our new power?  How do we defend ourselves against people who are willing to put their own children in harm’s way for the purpose of creating images of their dead to grace the pages of respected newspapers? How do we protect our own citizens while maintaining our integrity and humanity?  There is no joy for us in seeing those images of dead children—only heartbreak and soul-searching.

This heartbreak in no way lessens my pride in being an Ohev Yisrael, a lover of Israel, but it does impact my view as a partner in the Zionist enterprise. Like some of you, I have pondered if the course Israel took to protect itself was the best possible course. Even with the warnings before bombs were dropped, and even with the attempts at the surgical airstrikes, many were killed. We can only be diminished by that fact. And so, we are left here as Zionists, lovers of Israel in the aftermath of a war that felt quite lopsided. And we won, right? Frankly, it doesn’t feel that way. Perhaps Israel and America, at one point in time, could say that through our wars we rooted out evil, justice prevailed, and we could feel righteous in our victory. AM YISRAEL CHAI!

But it doesn’t feel like that this time – at least not to me. Why, yes, many of Hamas’ rockets were intercepted by the invaluable Iron Dome system, and relatively few Israeli civilians were harmed, although still we mourn for the soldiers. And yes, we destroyed tens of concrete tunnels which were constructed for the sole purpose of kidnapping and killing Israelis. Yes, all of this is a “win”, so to speak, but in the aftermath of this awful war, hundreds and hundreds of Palestinians were killed, businesses and residences of civilian Palestinians were destroyed, worldwide resentment towards Israel has only grown, and even more hatred towards Jews will continue to be ingrained into the hearts of another generation of Palestinian youngsters. Just a few weeks ago I spoke to a reasonably-minded Israeli who looks to the future with great despair. He is another lover of Israel, who realizes that the honeymoon is over.

As a result, this love affair has changed (or at least evolved) for me. What was once a fresh love – an unbridled and joyous love – is now touched with pain and uncertainty. The glow of those Israeli love songs and poetry has dulled a bit, but still evokes the memories of those first days of love. In Ari Shavit’s book, My Promised Land, he also speaks about this love. He talks about the Jaffa oranges, the solid, tanned young bodies of the early pioneers, the technological advancements. But he also talks about a changed country; one that is filled with ambiguities; a nation that is worn and seasoned and changing. He talks about the Israeli cities and towns that were once Arab cities and towns, but whose memory has now been erased. And after decades of living in a bubble of relative comfort, we can no longer ignore the realities around us and within.

Israel is not invincible. There are threats from within (disparate demographics of Jews who do not identify one with the other, economic inequality, a growing African refugee problem, a Bedouin population facing discrimination, identity crises for Israeli millennials, and spiritual leaders who have a stranglehold on religious freedom). And there are threats from the outside (a looming threat from a nuclear Iran, and a shaky Middle East as a result of the Arab Spring). We have a prime minister who has had some success at disarming Hamas, but so far effective peace talks have eluded him. The freedoms of those in the Territories who just want to raise their children in peace are being held hostage by those who are obsessed with their mission to destroy Jews. As a result, the dignity of the everyday Palestinian remains compromised. The policies we ourselves created to protect our country are now the very same policies that are eroding the country’s moral and political balance.

Shavit wrote about his own impressions as a journalist, father, and lifelong devotee to a peace process that must guarantee Israeli’s security. In his impressive book, “My Promised Land” (which I would encourage you all to read and discuss with me), Shavit explained the impossible reality of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse:

We are trapped by them and they are trapped by us. And every few years the conflict takes on a new form, ever more gruesome. Every few years, the mode of violence changes. The tragedy ends one chapter and begins another, but the tragedy never ends (Shavit, P. 236).

The love for Israel is still there, but it is different. Once you take off the rose-colored glasses, you reveal the thorns of a battered and bruised nation. Israel is still beautiful, but her life experience has given her a few wrinkles. If we wish to maintain a loving relationship with this evolving and maturing nation, we must see Israel for what she is…a country that is faced with impossible decisions. A country that desperately seeks to protect its own. A country that tries as much as it possibly can, despite extremely difficult circumstances, to avoid harming the children of its enemies. And we must recognize that, although the songs of joy and peace have taken on new meaning, they are still relevant.

The love that Ari Shavit, and I, and probably most of you, have for Israel mirrors the love we have for those we care about in our own lives. In all love affairs, the honeymoon eventually ends.  The beginning of the relationship is flush with excitement, with the intoxication of having found what seems like the perfect partner.  We idealize the object of our desire, focusing on all that is beautiful, and not wanting to see the flaws.  Over time we grow and change.  We are presented with the hardships and dilemmas that life throws at all of us.  We might not agree with our beloved on how to handle those challenges, and those disagreements can drive a wedge between us.  We start to see that this person who seemed so perfect at the beginning of the relationship is not perfect at all.  He does things that are annoying.  She says things that are hurtful.  The relationship is in danger of crumbling.

Do we abandon our loved ones when their sheen of perfection becomes tarnished?  Especially loved ones with whom we share a long and cherished history?  Do we hang on, though it is futile, to the idealization and innocence of the original love, or do we choose to accept the reality that now exists?

If, instead of pining for “the good old days” we take an honest look at our beloved, we can appreciate what she has gone through and how she arrived at who she is now. She is still our beloved, but more mature, seasoned by life experience, a real person with complexities and warts and the endearing qualities that drew us to her in the first place.  And don’t we hope that those who love us will do the same for us?  Understand that we have done the best we could to deal with the challenges we have faced, and accept us for who we are?

It is only when we give up the myths that our relationships are built on that we can enjoy the honesty and depth of truly mature love. Living in a hostile neighborhood has forced Israel into terrible dilemmas and required her to make wrenching decisions. As much as we might long for “the good old days” when we saw Israel as a country different from and more perfect than all others, we must be honest—her “life experiences” have required her to adapt, to do what she had to do, to become a real country that we may not always agree with.

So, what does it mean to “Stand with Israel”? It means that we that should love Israel with abandon, and defend her fiercely. It means that we should travel there whenever we can. It means that we should remain educated on the issues that impact the State. We should challenge any university or religious denomination that seeks to boycott, divest, or place sanctions on our Promised Land.

It also means that we must challenge ourselves to view Israel as she is, not what she was or what we wish she could be. It means that when Israel misses the ethical mark in its treatment of Arab or Jew, we should speak up. It means that we should not demonize every Muslim or Arab in the world. Standing with Israel means keeping the dialogue going so we can grow our relationship with her over time.

May we approach these High Holy Days with the resolve to look honestly at all our relationships. May we work at accepting the flaws in those we love, while never forgetting why we love them.  May we realize that the deepest, most mature relationships require the honesty to recognize how the complexities of life affect us all.  And may we all have the opportunity to experience that kind of love.  Amen.