The Two-Way Street: Reflections for Rosh Hashanah

September 6, 2018

As we approach Rosh Hashanah, J Street is pleased to share a special edition of The Two-Way Street. Below are two drashes to help us welcome the Jewish New Year.

Rabbi Andrea London is a Co-Chair of the J Street Rabbinic & Cantorial Cabinet and the Senior Rabbi at Beth Emet in Evanston, IL. Her reflection picks up on the theme of holiness — kedusha. Rabbi Arthur Waskow is a nationally renowned activist and founding director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, PA. His reflection focuses on the theme of reconciliation.

I would also like to share J Street’s High Holiday Reflection pamphlet, which is a compilation of three reflections written by rabbis and communal leaders that we hope you will enjoy and share.

You can find those reflections here.

Rav Kook, the chief rabbi of the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine, wrote, “Hayashan yithadesh v’hehadash yitkadesh — the old shall be made new and the new shall be made holy.” I read these words as a challenge to what Israel should become as a society. The State of Israel, Rav Kook maintained, should aspire not just to a place among the nations but to the achievement of holiness.

When we usher in a new Jewish year, we engage individually and collectively in cheshbon hanefesh — an accounting of our souls. As we do so, it is appropriate also to do some soul searching as to how Israel, now 70, is living up to Rav Kook’s vision. Over a short period of time, Israel has renewed the Jewish people in its ancient land and has created an impressive modern nation. But is it holy? Holiness sounds like a lofty or even unattainable ideal in the realm of nation states. Yet holiness in Jewish tradition is not an abstract concept. In the Torah, holiness is a concrete demand made by God with respect to the kind of society we are to build. Leviticus 19, known as the Holiness Code, dictates how we are to relate to people in our society — how we are to act ethically in our business dealings and the steps we must take to avoid exploiting others.

Above all, the Torah states, we are to love the neighbor and the stranger as we love ourselves. Specifically, we are not to mistreat or take advantage of the stranger who resides among us. Loving both our neighbor and the stranger means we are to treat everyone as we wish to be treated. Notably, no exception is made for people of other ethnic or religious backgrounds.

Increasingly, however, the State of Israel is promoting love of Jewish neighbors at the expense of non-Jewish citizens of Israel. The recently-passed Basic Law titled “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People” explicitly gives preference to the rights and privileges of Jewish citizens over non-Jewish citizens, downgrades Arabic from an official language to one that has “special status,” and establishes “Jewish settlement as a national value” that the state will promote.

Consider for a moment the contrast between the Nation-State Law and Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The differences in their visions for Israeli society could not be more stark. The Declaration’s vision is one that is consonant with the Holiness Code we are bound to by the Torah: “THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” While the Declaration of Independence speaks of “complete equality of social and political rights,” the word “equality” does not appear in the Nation-State Law. Indeed, opposition figures were rebuffed in their efforts to have the concept of equality included in the law. In the balancing act between Israel’s competing values, those who seek to place Jewish citizens above non-Jewish citizens won out.

This past year, we also witnessed the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem — a slap in the face to Palestinians, who see East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. Additionally, we continue to witness a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, while the US administration refuses to help fund UNRWA, the UN agency that could help alleviate the suffering.

How, we must ask, does ignoring fundamental human rights and turning a blind eye to the suffering of Palestinians ensure Israel’s security? According to Dan Shapiro, who served as US ambassador to Israel during the Obama administration, even senior officials in the Prime Minister’s office and senior officials in the IDF adamantly opposed abruptly cutting off funding to UNRWA. They are concerned that depriving Gazans of humanitarian aid will only serve to strengthen Hamas.

Such voices within Israel remind me of why J Street is so important as a voice that calls out misguided, politically motivated decisions that stand to harm Israel, rather than protect it. I am proud to be a member of J Street because it shares my commitment to the rebirth of the Jewish people in Israel and to the building of a society based on the ethical principles enshrined in Judaism.

On the eve of this season of renewal, we look honestly at Israel through the lens of the possibilities inherent in the New Year that is dawning. We turn to a blank page in the Book of Life and commit to writing the next chapter filled with deeds of holiness that will bring peace, security and justice to all the inhabitants of the land of Israel.

– Rabbi Andrea C. London

The Torah Stories of Rosh Hashanah

On the two days of Rosh Hashanah, we traditionally read two painful stories: In the first, Abraham expels his older son, Ishmael, and Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, from his family. In the second, Abraham endangers the life of his younger son, Isaac — and according to many commentaries, brings about the death of Isaac’s mother, Sarah, in sorrow that her son Isaac might have died. Especially in our time, when the government of Israel is behaving toward the Palestinians much as Abraham and Sarah behaved toward Hagar and Ishmael, these stories bear a dreadful burden.

Now, these two stories cry out for turning and for healing.

There is, in fact, in Torah a tale of how the two brothers reconcile with each other. They join to bury their father, then Isaac goes to live at the wellspring that is Ishmael’s home. We read this story in the regular rhythm of Shabbat Torah readings. But at The Shalom Center, we think that the story should also be read on Yom Kippur, instead of leaving us stuck in the pain of the Rosh Hashanah stories (Genesis 25: 7-11). This story reminds us as individuals that it is always possible for us to turn away from anger and toward reconciliation. And especially in this era, it reminds us of the need for the great-great-great-grandchildren of Isaac — the Jewish people — and the great-great-great-grandchildren of Ishmael — the Arab peoples and Islam — to turn toward one another with compassion.

– Rabbi Arthur Waskow

If you are interested in writing for Two-Way Street, please email Shaina Wasserman at [email protected]. All submissions should be 600 words or under. 

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