This year, the Two-Way Street is presenting three Divrei Torah for the Yamim Nora’im, with the goal of increasing the number of Israel-focused sermons given during these holidays. Each of them deals with a different theme:
- balancing the security of Sarah with the safety of Hagar
- urging the State of Israel to admit its wrongs and do teshuvah, and
- advocating for both expressing what we believe in and for listening authentically to others.
We hope that these words will inspire you, and we hope you will take the pledge to give a progressive Israel sermon during the High Holy Days. Feel free to use these pieces as starting points for your own sermons, teachings or reflections. J Street, as part of the Progressive Israel Network, also created a resource page with “stories from the field.”
I would not be the first to suggest the metaphor of Torah as the genome map of the Jewish people. Of course, it’s not “true.” It’s just a metaphor. But it is nonetheless a remarkably useful pedagogical tool for working through our deepest spiritual and national dilemmas.
A biological genome tells us much of what we are happy to know about ourselves as a species, as well as a lot that we wish would go away. Scientists are working as we speak to do precisely that: to alter or abolish the presence of certain genes that make us sick or vulnerable or incapable of fulfilling our human aspirations. Some of their work is thrilling, while some of it bumps up against the edges of ethical propriety. Is it moral to change basic facts about our biological selves? On the other hand, is it moral not to, if it could benefit life?
If the Torah itself were our Jewish genome, then studying it would reveal everything we are most proud of as a people, and also a great deal that we wish we could change about ourselves and the meaning of Judaism. When we take a deep dive into that Jewish gene map on our major holy days, we have an opportunity to remind ourselves of what it is we need to nurture and foster about our Jewish collective, as well as what we are capable of thinking and doing when we are at our worst.
The first day of Rosh Hashanah presents a case in point. The Torah reading (Genesis 21) invites us to celebrate the continuity of our people through the unlikely birth of Isaac. It adjures us to identify with Abraham and Sarah, whose steadfast faith in God’s providential guidance allows them to persist through decades of disappointment. It suggests that the birth of Isaac, preceded by God’s promise of the land of Canaan as a covenantal staging area for all time, is somehow parallel to the creation of the universe itself. If Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the cosmos, then Isaac’s birth is the beginning of our Jewish cosmic journey.
If only that were the sum total of what the Torah has to tell us in Genesis 21. If only! But the story continues in a darker way.
As the reality of Isaac’s birth sinks in, Sarah demands that Abraham expel Hagar and her son Ishmael from the household. Sarah’s behavior seems cruel. Is her attitude indicative of a bad Jewish gene? Is it possible that Jews can be unwelcoming, intolerant and unable to share our “house” with others, especially those to whom our own destiny is tied? We know the answer, and the Torah seems to confirm it.
Abraham is distraught. After all, Ishmael is his son, too. Here Abraham’s remorse is something we identify with. Perhaps this is evidence of a good Jewish gene — the gene that recognizes an act of injustice and recoils from it. Abraham sees no reason why Isaac and Ishmael cannot share a household, and perhaps a legacy. Without disparaging our matriarch Sarah, we nonetheless cheer Abraham on for his commendable ethics.
Now God enters the scene. God advises Abraham to sh’ma b’kolah, to “listen to Sarah’s voice.” Abraham takes this to mean that he must indeed banish Hagar and Ishmael, which he proceeds to do. He sends them out into the wilderness with barely enough water to survive.
We modern readers recoil. Is the father of the Jewish people so callous? Is God callous as well? Does the Jewish legacy impel us to find no room in our hearts or in our ancient land for Ishmael, who clearly has a stake in both the land and the family history?
Along come our genetic scientists, the classical rabbis. They sympathize with Hagar and Ishmael, and they feel sympathy for Sarah and her pain. They empathize with Abraham who is thrust between a rock and a hard place, needing to exhibit compassion for everyone involved — for all of his beloved family. In their midrashic twists on the story, Abraham sets up a comfortable dwelling for Hagar and Ishmael and regularly visits them through the coming years. He consistently sends them physical support. He even marries Hagar once Sarah dies and Isaac is married off. It is as if the rabbis are genetic scientists desperately trying to correct a set of flaws in the otherwise laudable Jewish genome.
Perhaps they are saying that God is telling Abraham not to expel and exile Hagar and Ishmael (Sarah’s literal request), but nonetheless to hear Sarah’s expression of fear and insecurity. Perhaps God wants Abraham to solve his dilemma by recognizing both Sarah’s need for security and Hagar’s need for justice.
I wonder at the rabbis’ prescience in choosing this passage for us to confront as we begin each new year. Through the Middle Ages, it would have been incomprehensible for Jews to contemplate the challenge of sharing the Land of Israel with our cousins from the family of Ishmael, since we could barely imagine being there ourselves, much less having any agency there. Now we have not only agency in the land we call Israel and Palestinians call Palestine, but we have the upper hand.
Might not the rabbis want us to think about our terrible modern impasse as an opportunity to do some genetic splicing, just as they did in their daring re-reading of these texts? Might they want us to adopt both the bold faith of Abraham and Sarah as they solidified their nuclear family, and the compassion of Abraham as he followed his conscience in creating a safe home for Hagar and Ishmael alongside his own?
Safety and security — for both families. Achieving it is a long shot, for sure. But that is the challenge of being Jewish in the face of a new year. We are genetically programmed to go for the long shot. Our chance awaits.
Rabbi Les Bronstein has served Bet Am Shalom Synagogue (Reconstructionist) in White Plains, New York since 1989. He is president of the New York Board of Rabbis and a board member of T’ruah, the UJA-Federation of New York, and the J Street Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet.
Maimonides starts the third chapter of the Laws of Teshuvah in the Mishneh Torah with a surprising assertion.
Each and every person has merits and sins. One whose merits exceed their sins is righteous, and one whose sins exceed their merits is evil; [one whose merits and sins] are evenly balanced is mediocre. So too the state. If the merits of all of its inhabitants exceeded their sins, it is, indeed, a righteous state; but if their sins exceeded, it is, indeed, an evil state. (3:1)
There are two ways of understanding this law. The first is that it is a simple equation. First, there is a judgement of each individual. Then the number of righteous individuals is tallied up and place next to the number of evil ones. Pure arithmetic.
However, a nation is not simply the sum of its individuals, and Maimonides knew this very well. There are actions that a nation can undertake that an individual cannot. There are obligations in Jewish law that are only incumbent upon the nation, that individuals cannot carry out except as part of that nation. (War, for example. Building the Temple. Jubilee.) If then, the nation has obligations above and beyond the obligations of individual persons, the nation can also sin in a different way or at a different level than the sum of its citizens. So I want to think about what it might look like for a nation to do teshuvah. I want to think about what it would look like for a specific nation — the State of Israel — to do teshuvah.
The first step is public confession of the sin. However, Maimonides is very adamant that one must confess and stop sinning. Confession and expressions of regret are not enough if one continues sinning. Maimonides uses a rabbinic analogy to explain the deep problem of confessing a sinful practice which one has no intention of abandoning. Maimonides says it’s like one who bathes in a mikveh, a ritual bath, while holding a sheretz, a creature which holds peak impurity. A sheretz and a corpse are equally impure. They are both called the “aboriginal impurity.” One who bathes in a mikveh while still grasping a sheretz is using a practice of purity for its performative value while essentially missing the point. The person is still impure. So too, is the “penitent” who performs the confessional act of repentance with no intention of ceasing their bad behavior. That person has performed penitence in the worst way, while not having reformed at all.
So in order to perform teshuvah, the State of Israel has to confess it’s sins and in fact stop doing them. What might this look like? The president of Israel would express regret for the ethnic cleansing, the expulsions, the unprovoked murder of civilians during the War of Independence / the Nakba and for manufacturing the excuse of the Arab countries telling the Palestinians to flee as an excuse to not allow those expelled to return. All of this is now in the public record. Historians have been writing about this for years. However, the historical record is not a confession that comes with real regret and the intention to not continue those actions. The State would then allow those refugees who wanted to return to do so, and those who did not want to return would be compensated.
In the best of all possible worlds, the Palestinians and Israeli Jews would come together and decide how to, in Danielle Sered’s words, “do sorry”. How would the Israeli government and people act in such a way that demonstrated that they accepted responsibility for their actions, and that they were acting in such a way as to repair the wrong?
This, of course, is not an easy road nor a short one. However, the alternative course according to Maimonides is destruction. “A state whose sins exceed [its merits] is immediately destroyed, even as it is said: ‘Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorroh is great (Gen. 18. 20).’” Sodom’s sin according to Ezekiel was hoarding resources and not sharing them. For this they were destroyed.
One does not have to believe in a divine shower of sulfurous fire. A State whose creation was coeval with great injustice cannot ignore that injustice indefinitely. The continued injustices will rot its civil and democratic institutions. This is already happening. Israel is fast becoming an illiberal democracy with autocratic tendencies. The West Bank is an apartheid region where Jewish settlers and Palestinians live under separate and unequal legal jurisdictions. This cannot hold.
The gates of repentance, however, are always open. Now more than ever.
Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Cohen is Professor of Rabbinic Literature at American Jewish University. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and a member of the editorial board at Tikkun Magazine. His latest book is Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism.
According to Facebook, I like to watch cooking videos and woodworking demonstrations. You’d be hard-pressed to guess it based on knowing me, but the algorithm has determined that’s what I want to see. Though I enjoy cooking, rarely do those videos feature recipes that I could ever manage or have any interest in making myself. But that’s not really the point – those videos are just cotton candy, fluff that’s enjoyable, but ultimately without impact.
And let’s face it, this is what Facebook is best at. Instant gratification. Getting a thrill, a laugh, a pang of sympathy or a dose of indignation with no further connection, attachment or effort required. Social media has been around long enough now that we know they make money from user engagement — eyeballs looking at ads — and that even more than happy things, it’s indignation, outrage, and anger that really gets us to engage.
That has led us into a vicious spiral where the only news we hear about on any controversial issue, particularly around Israel, is slanted to opinions we already hold and written in a way to get us worked up. And when people on the other side of the political spectrum share news about Israeli politics or Middle East violence, we already know we disagree. We don’t have to read the article, we don’t have to think about the op-ed’s angle or watch the video attached to the email — by dint of being associated with certain organizations or political parties, we know who stands on the side of right and wrong.
And here we stand as a people on the threshold of the High Holy Days, reflecting on where our own balance of right and wrong has fallen in the past year. It would be easy to blame a lot on social media, but the deeper issue is our desire for instant gratification. It’s so much easier to receive and experience and take without listening or engaging, without doing the hard work of meeting those with whom we disagree and seeing the world through their eyes. We shout our replies into the ether, bemoaning and badgering and hectoring each other. We are in the midst of an epidemic of not-listening.
The blessing for the sounding of the shofar makes clear the mitzvah is to hear the shofar, not to sound it. Only a bare handful of Jews have the honor of sounding the shofar, but all of us can hear the sacred call and make a choice to respond. We know the issues we face are complicated, but often we reduce our neighbors, co-workers, and family to simplistic motivations or malevolence borne of ignorance. The call of the shofar is our reminder to listen.
First, we must listen to the sacred call to action within us. It’s much easier to share an article on Facebook or post in the comments section, but the shofar demands action from us. Donate, volunteer, deliver a sermon or get on your feet and protest. If you believe in a two-state solution, then fight for it. But if your advocacy is only on Facebook, it’s not advocacy.
Second, we must acknowledge the sacred call that others hear. We don’t have to always agree on the issues, but we must recognize the face of the Divine that lies in each of us and say, yes, we disagree, but we’re all humans. We each have principles that we believe in and other people will put their values in different orders of priority than we might choose for ourselves. Stand up for what you believe in, but don’t give in to the temptation to dehumanize the people with whom you disagree.
Our sacred texts teach that God’s voice can shatter mountains and that it can be a soft murmuring sound. As we move ever closer towards the Days of Awe, let us pray not that God hears our prayers, but that when God responds, we are able to listen.
Cantor Jamie Marx is honored to serve as the cantor of Temple Sholom in Broomall, PA. A composer and songwriter, Cantor Marx has written, recorded and published numerous pieces, including two albums of original Jewish rock. He is married to Anna and is the proud father of Eliana and Isaac.