September 25, 2023 -
This sermon was shared by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk during the Kol Nidre Sanctuary Service, Oct. 4 , 2022.
We’ve all seen that compelling moment in a courtroom drama when a central character agrees to testify. We are led to believe the testimony will help justice to be served. But a stern warning is soon issued to the witness about stern questioning to expect from opposing counsel. In the hours before Kol Nidre I often feel like a witness anticipating hostile cross examination. Tonight is itself courtroom drama. Kol Nidre refer to broken vows. The words warn us against perjury in what we say and how we pray. But the questions I believe we face from our adversary are the same each year. First century Rabbi Hillel wrote them in first person: Im Eyn Ani Li Mi Li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me? Uch’sheani L’atzmi Ma-Ani? If I am only for myself, what am I? V’im lo achshav, eyn matai? And if not now, when? (Pirke Avot 1:14, Babylonian Talmud)
We in American Jewish life seem most at ease at the corner of Hillel’s second and third question. We agree to help others. We act for justice with urgency. Where we often duck responsibility is decisively answering the first question. Im Eyn Ani Li Mi Li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me? I’m not sure we know our answer. Before you react defensively, bear in mind that Jewish history is ready to be called as a rebuttal witness. So if we testify government will protect us against threats to Jewish safety, history impeaches us. In open court, it can show: if Jews aren’t for themselves, no one…no one…will be for us.
I wish I could shout from my courtroom seat that history is lying and risk admonishment or contempt. I can’t. I wish I could. I wish, like Israeli poet Ruth Beker in her compelling poem “Don’t Show Me,” that I could teach that in Jewish history we’ve been “kings in freedom, our children princes on horseback and that women [were] queens of it all.” (Ruth Beker, “Don’t Show Me,” in Voices Within The Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets, Editors: Howard Schwartz and Anthony Rudolf, New York: Avon Books, 1980, p. 773) But denial does us no good. History and modernity daily overrule wistful hearsay. I could cite many stories.
Tonight I’ll tell just one Rabbi Caruso shared with us about nine different student associations at UC-Berkeley law school who’ve each amended their by-laws. The amendments ensure that no speaker is allowed to the floor who supports Israel and Zionism. (Leading US Jewish groups blast Berkeley Law school amid anti-Zionism uproar | The Times of Israel). This action to me is just one of many indications that Im Eyn Ani Li, when we are not for ourselves, present-day malevolent forces may determine our destiny.
I believe that Israel can and should receive criticism of its policies by students of the law. Israel can withstand rigorous cross-examination. But that’s not what the UC-Berkeley leadership is doing. They are intimidating Jews, knowing the primacy of Israel in our culture and faith hold Israel. If our efforts to fight such tactics are incomplete or half-hearted, more places will deny Israel a fighting chance to speak for itself. In a world where Jews are denied a voice, we are not safe, and then no one should doubt who will be for us. Im Eyn Ani Li Mi Li, who will be for us? The State of Israel, soon to turn a mature 75 years old, will be for us! I am here tonight to testify to the compelling need to reclaim Zionism and encourage Jews worldwide to build honest, hopeful, loving and mutually critical relationships with the State of Israel.
I know it’s simple not to address Israel. I know reclaiming Zionism may not be something you’ve been longing to do. But this is not UC-Berkeley law review. This is the free pulpit of a historic Cleveland synagogue and here these values are not just safe to discuss, they are of paramount concern. Yes, my choice in career may be part of why I believe that. But the thing is…becoming a rabbi has not been the most important thing that happened to me as a Jew. Most important has been creating and building a life-long relationship with the State of Israel. So much has changed since I first laid my eyes on our homeland. Israel has progressed, taking shrewd risks. It has also missed valuable opportunities. So there have been times that I’ve been upset by its governing decisions.
But as I’ve matured, I have come to believe Israel needs my faith not just at any given moment. It also needs me to believe in Israel as she aspires to be: at peace and secure alongside other peoples who are at peace and secure. You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.
There is actually a lyric from an even better Israeli song which resonates poignantly for me. It is: Eyn li eretz acheret. This can be translated as: I have no other land, or there is no land like this. To which I’d personally add: there no land like Israel that is as capable of making and breaking my heart. I am hardly the first rabbi at this pulpit to feel in my gut a kinship with Israel. That same orientation of your rabbis’ hearts dwelling in the East goes back as far as the time of our synagogue’s most iconic Rabbi.
It is exactly 100 years ago that Rabbi Barnett Brickner came to Cleveland, envisioning this as a laboratory congregation, where no experiment or idea, including the reclamation of Zionism, should be off limits. This was a change at Euclid Avenue Temple where his immediate predecessor did not prioritize Zionism. But Israel was a spiritual ideal very close to Rabbi Brickner’s heart. So in both his rabbinic work and in his volunteerism, he became a Zionist leader. What did that mean? I suspect in the early 20s it meant raising awareness and aid to assist then-nascent efforts of the Zionist pioneers in Palestine.
But 25 years into his work at our temple, the Zionism Rabbi Brickner believed in simply had to have changed! For by 1947, Rabbi Brickner publicly advocated for the promise of an emerging nation-state. The entire world had borne witness to six million Jews brutalized and killed. Establishing Israel would enable survivors to gain dignity and the remaining Jews worldwide to know Israel would be there for us. I can only imagine must it have been like for Rabbi Brickner to organize his thoughts to speak to our congregation at 82nd and Euclid, seventy five Kol Nidre nights ago. In those same days and weeks, negotiators at the UN were drafting Resolution 181, to propose a partition in the land we contest with Arabs. If each side accepted partitions, they’d have sovereignty and self-determination. What a tremendous path of reconciliation would then be opened! (https://mfa.gov.il/Jubilee-years/Pages/1947-UN-General-Assembly-Resolution-181-The-international-community-says-Yes-to-the-establishment-of-the-State-of-Israel.aspx)
For Jews, Resolution 181 was a breakthrough. We’d been told for decades, even going back to the First Zionist Congress in Basel, 125 years ago, that we should find someplace else than the Middle East to make our national home. Now within the confines of partitions, a portion of the land for which we’d pined for centuries would be ours. Enough world leaders in power were now saying they could accept that eyn li eretz acheret, to Jews, there is no other land. On Nov 29, 1947, the partition plan passed and was accepted by the Zionist leaders of the time. But the Palestinians rejected it outright. A war ensued. Ever since, Israeli and Palestinian borders have seen nothing but attacks, provocations, and days of rage.
Come visit my study at temple. There you’ll see featured a landscape photograph taken in Israel. The photographer Barry Howe depicts the sky above the Old City. The nightfall sky is hued in deep purple kissing the gold and limestone ramparts of Jerusalem’s outer walls. I meditate facing that image. When I open my eyes, I feel against my eyelids the cool Jerusalem breeze blowing from the surrounding Judean mountains! What a joy to recall the times I’ve lived in and visited that sacred parcel of land. This temple has empowered me to guide hundreds of our members in Israel where it has been rewarding to assist them in coming their own informed conclusions about the challenges and opportunities before Israel!
I realize Mr. Howe snapped this photo from miles outside the Old City. That it was taken from such distance obscures critical details. It contains no nuance. All it really tells is a purple and golden story of uncomplicated visual access to a cherished distant city. I really do want you to see this photo. It makes a powerful impression. But none of us should base our beliefs about rebuilding Zionism or Israel’s complicated modern history on a beautifully curated majestic photograph. No. Almost 75 years into Israel’s national existence, the consequences of it capturing and securing Jerusalem in the Six-Day War demand to be seen up close and personal. Yes, Israel faces other existential threats. But within its own borders are pressing questions and challenges that its own inhabitants demand be met.
I have confidence that the State of Israel can address such challenges. That is more than me putting on a happy face because of Israel’s effect on my Jewish life. Israel is also a flawed place. Those living in Israel are among the first and truly among the only people in the Middle East who can publicly speak out against the flaws of their government. Given the spotlight on Israel in a now highly problematic modern United Nations, Israel hardly needs it to be Yom Kippur to feel warned of an impending cross-examination. But I think Israel has plenty of evidence of its own that it is lives up to moral and Jewish values. Let’s take this moment to imagine how Israel could respond to the same questions by Rabbi Hillel I discussed earlier with American Jews symbolically in the witness chair.
This is just what I believe. To best lead this congregation and plan for your future encounters with Israel, what I need to know is: What do Zionism and Israel mean to you? What to you is the purpose of a Jewish State? Are you willing to grow your perspective and listen to those who disagree with you? Your answer matters, especially if you’ve felt conflicted. If you’ve never made a trip to Israel, let this year, the 75th since Israel was founded, the 125th since the First Zionist Congress, be the year you decided to place your feet on Israeli soil, meet its people, enjoy its beauty and deepen your views based on first-hand experience.
If you have traveled to Israel before, let this historic year be one where you took your energy and placed it into a commitment to renewed Israel activism. You could dig deeper into Israeli culture, music and the arts. You could get involved politically and speak up to congress and the Senate for Israel’s sake. You could explore one of our Jewish Federation of Cleveland’s many projects and investments in Israel which I know would move you greatly.
But take these steps and others your eyes open. Create a cross examination of your own. Israel can take it. Ask Israelis anything you like. But I beg you to inquire not only about what threatens Israel from without. Also seek insight about what animates Israel from within! You will learn. It will be rewarding. But I predict the dominant message will be eyn li eretz acheret, that there is no other land, none as special nor as complicated.
Israeli novelist Amos Oz often addressed the complicated land of Israel in his books. His own life story informed him. Here was someone born during the British Mandate, years before Ben Gurion declared Israel’s independence. He served in the military, fighting with distinction against Arab aggression for two years in IDF tanks. Yet, after the Six-Day War, he realized that for Israel’s long-term well-being, he should now advocate for a Palestinian state. This was not popular. It remained an outlier view until the early 1990s, when he’d live to see an Israeli Prime Minister declare that pursuing a Palestinian state was now in Israel’s best interests.
In his book, Under This Blazing Light, Mr. Oz wrote that we must note the difference between the inner motives of our Zionism and our justification to others. In a compelling essay, he wrote that due to “age-old longings” for Zion, Israel simply cannot and “could not have come into being and could not have existed anywhere but here.” But age-old longings to live in one’s homeland are motive, not justification. On this, he wrote: “Israel’s justification…is nothing more and nothing less than the principle that ‘a drowning man [must] grasp the only plank that can save him.’ And that is justification enough.” (Under This Blazing Light, Amos Oz, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (English Edition 1995), p. 82)
A drowning man must grasp the only plank that can save him. For me, this stark imagery reminds me of the urgency of decisions Israel still must make about securing its future and that of the Palestinians. For Oz distinguished between Israel as a “drowning man who grasps a plank and makes room for himself by pushing others sitting on it to one side…and Israel as a drowning man who grabs the whole plank for himself and pushes the others into the sea.” (Under This Blazing Light, Amos Oz, p. 82).
I hope you’ll pray that this New Year is a time when Israel is able to be on the same life-saving plank with its neighbors. Imagine: what if no one had to drown in hatred or kill with expectation that their brutality conferred some kind of nobility? That dream may be impossible. But is it worth a try? Can we invest in a vision that sees tomorrow different from today?
A story. This story doesn’t take place in Jerusalem. It isn’t in the Torah and no one is featured who is famous. It’s a story that happened just the other night in one of my favorite places, sitting anywhere next to one of my kids. Our youngest, now in 11th grade, spent a month of this summer in Israel with other friends with whom they’ve gone each year to our Reform Movement’s Indiana summer camp. Understand that when Hope returned home, I followed sage advice from teen educators. I didn’t ask a lot of questions.
I knew Hope had fun. I knew they’d enjoyed Shabbat in Israel. I knew on the way home, Hope almost missed a connection in Vienna. So I also knew every stop their duffel made between Vienna and Shaker Heights. But the other day, before dropping them off at their job, I summoned the nerve to ask aloud: what did you learn in Israel? It was a risk. But I was almost immediately rewarded.
The first thing Hope told me was how cool it is to be immersed in a culture different than ours. It was remarkable to see how Judaism touched so many of the diverse Israelis who hosted them for various activities. The second thing Hope said is that Israeli sites are fun places to make and deepen friendships. I pressed harder, asking: what did you learn about Israel? Hope explained that many educational sessions occurred when kids were hot and tired. But they did recall a panel discussion when they learned something valuable. My excitement grew. I leaned in to ask what valuable lesson they’d taken home. Hope responded: I learned that there is absolutely no possibility of a two-state solution.
I told you Israel will make and break your heart. But I am not here as a rebuttal witness. Nor could I possibly rebut her intellect, her intention, her dynamic and engaged way of connecting with Israel and Judaism. No. Jewish history yet to be will have to rebut or endorse that lesson.
I am speaking now as a proud father of two kids raised at a temple where our rabbis support and discuss with our kids our dream of a better path ahead. This Kol Nidre, from my spot in the witness chair, I see a path ahead for Israel and Jews worldwide that is hard and complicated. But the Israel yet to be, one graced by peace and dignity, that Israel is worth seeking. For Eyn Li Eretz Acheret, There is simply no place like Israel. Not for us, not ever.
Ways to Connect with Israel