Rosh Hashanah Day 2--Let's go to Israel

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
RH Rosh Hashanah Day 2 5779, 2018

Debbie Freedman, the incredible composer of Jewish music, famously sang:

L'chi lach, to a land that I will show you
Leich l'cha, to a place you do not know
L'chi lach, on your journey I will bless you
And (you shall be a blessing)3x l'chi lach 
(Lyrics copied from her Anthology:

Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhacki, the 11th century French rabbi, famous for his commentary and perhaps his wine, says that there is no before or after in the Torah, ein mukdam umeuchar baTorah. With that excuse, I can look back in the Torah to the parsha before our reading this morning, and speak about the journey of Avram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah. Today we read more about their relationship--or at least how Abraham, without consulting his wife, took his son to be sacrificed. I usually argue that the test of Abraham may also have been a test of God, but that is a conversation for another Rosh Hashanah!

Ultimately the stories we read in the Torah are the journeys and narratives of our people. They are intentionally and inherently tribal. They connect us to one another. In the words of Rabbi Ron Wolfson, they show “relational Judaism”. Our ancestors genuinely cared about each other--and that is what makes a kehillah (community) thrive today. We need to listen to one another’s stories, share our own, and join together “to build a Jewish community that enriches our lives.” (Wolfson’s Relational Judaism, introduction)

Truly connecting to one another, seeing the holiness in one another, we discover the commonality and universality of much of human experience. Yet we cannot discover that if we focus too far off in the distance. We cannot see it unless it is right in front of our faces. We need one another--side by side at CBI. Sometimes, to find one another though, we have to take our own journeys.

In just a few weeks we will read Parshat Lech-Lecha, from the book of Bereshit/Genesis.

וַיֹּאמֶר ה" אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ. 
1 Now the LORD said unto Abram: 'Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto the land that I will show thee.
ב וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ, וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה. 
2 And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing.

ג וַאֲבָרְכָה, מְבָרְכֶיךָ, וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ, אָאֹר; וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ, כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה. 
3 And I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse; and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.' (Text from

This promise is the first reference to the Promised Land, to Israel in Torah. In the rest of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, (TANACH), Israel is mentioned many, many, many times. It is seen as a Holy Place, a gift from Gd. It’s boundaries are debated and defined in different places, including Genesis 15, Exodus 23, Numbers 34 and Ezekiel 47. Throughout our Bible and our history, we read of Israel as Canaan, Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel), Zion, or simply “Ha-Aretz” (just “the land”). Exiled from their home, Jews for centuries wrote of their despair. Numerous poems, lamentations, and piyyutim, are written on the subject, chanted on Tisha B’av and other fast days. On every holiday, including this one, we include a paragraph in the Musaf Amidah that begins “Because of our sins we were exiled from the land” ומפני חטאינו גלינו מארצנו
Chagall windows at Hadassah Hospital
Many commentators, including one of my teachers, Rabbi Reuven Kimelman, write that the daily Amidah, the prayer that Jews say three times a day, is itself almost entirely devoted to the prayer for Jews to once again have sovereignty over Israel and to live in a more perfect world. For Jews of many generations, that was a pipe dream. It lingered forever in the distance without the slightest possibility of coming true, yet they continue to pray for it, every single day. While all of those generations of Jews prayed for the possibility to live as a Jew in the Land of Israel, today it is a reality. As an associate member of Hadassah, Way back in 2012, I received my copy of Hadassah magazine, celebrating 100 years since Henrietta Szold led the first Hadassah meeting. Before that meeting, she and her mother, in 1909, visited pre-state Israel. It was a very different country than it is today. Sanitation was poor; resources were lacking. There was no hi-tech industry, since there was barely industry or technology in Israel. Today the environment is different! Heck, it wasn’t a country, and certainly not a Jewish state. Today there is a sovereign state of Israel. Today Hadassah is a multi-national organization that helps connect Jews to the Jewish state, building phenomenal hospitals, schools, and more.

If you have not been to Israel in the last five years, it will look very different than your last experience. I need your participation for a moment!
How many people in this room have been to Israel? Raise your hand!!
How many people have seen the Kotel, the Western Wall, all that remains from the Holy Temple?
How many have been to the Golan? Tasted the wine? Looked over into Lebanon and Syria?
How about Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial? If you haven’t seen it since it was redesigned, it is a totally new place.
Right now, we are beginning the process of planning a congregational trip to Israel. Whether this is your first time or your fiftieth time, I promise you will see things you have never seen before. You will experience sensations you have never experienced before.

Israel is a land of mavericks and mystics. It is a place filled with energy. Some of that energy is good, some is more tense. When you walk the streets of Jerusalem, some say there is a heaviness in the air, as the souls of all who have been there don’t ever want to leave! You see the land that is coveted and holy to more than half the world’s population.

If you are concerned about safety, about Iran, about rockets, I understand. The world can be a scary place sometimes. However, you might just be safer in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv than you are here. In my rabbinic training, I spent several months living in Jerusalem and many more living in New York City, the city that never sleeps. While NYC never sleeps, I felt far more comfortable walking around Jerusalem late at night, taking buses, cabs, or my own two feet than I ever did on the subway in NYC. Tourism in Israel is a major industry and the government goes out of its way to ensure the tourists are especially well protected. If there are any threats, our itinerary will be adjusted to avoid them.

When I spent my Seminary year in Israel, there was a war in Gaza. At that time I met two Conservative rabbis, who brought twenty congregants on short notice to specifically, go to the “dangerous” part of the country. We met political leaders and police in bomb shelters, met soldiers in a staging area, in their tanks, and offered neck-warmers and prayer-cards. On that day, I also feel like we had Divine protection, because never once did we hear the siren warning us of an impending rocket attack. We did see however, the storage area where the rockets were collected in the South. Thousands of metal pipes, some with their original plumbing marks on them were transformed into weapons by terrorists in Gaza. In past years we heard complaints about the lack of diversity of products in Gaza. The IDF greatly limited shipments in, because they discovered that construction supplies, pipes, and even certain types of laundry detergent were being modified into explosives! In the last few years, the situation has improved, but there are new challenges. As another reminder, unlike that mission, we will NOT be going anywhere dangerous, so save your worrying for another topic!

In Israel, people look after one another. Several of my classmates had their first children while we were in Israel. Walking to the supermarket, on a bus, in the market, they got advice from everyone. “How can you go outside without a hat for your baby? Why does she have a sweater on, it’s too hot!? Let me help you. Oh, motek (cute!)!!” Yes, Israelis are also known for directness, or among Americans, rudeness or brashness, but they take care of each other in ways that we do not see here.

In Israel, Jewish life is palpable. Yes, we frequently hear that Israel is divided into secular (chiloni) and religious (dati) sectors. While that is not entirely untrue, life is far more nuanced than that. Torah is taught in schools. Many that call themselves secular light candles for Shabbat and say Kiddush over the wine. Many more go to seders and light Hanukkah candles than do here. Unless they try to eat treif, many people unintentionally keep kosher, since most of the major grocery chains carry only kosher foods. (At the same time, you do have to be careful when choosing restaurants, since not EVERY restaurant is kosher!) Of course, on our trip, many meals are included, so I promise those are kosher!

One way to make this trip a family vacation is to invite family along. If you have friends or family in other parts of the country that want to join us, they absolutely are welcome. They can be in touch with me or with our tour company, just make sure they tell them our synagogue name and my name so they get put on our trip. If the timing of our trip doesn’t work for you, please let me know. Hopefully we can make them a more regular occurrence. I know some rabbis who make two congregational missions per year!

Israel is our homeland. You have to see it to believe it. Come join us. As Hillel says, “if not now, when?”

If you are not ready to go, but are looking for ways to invest in Israel, plan for retirement, or give gifts to your children, grandchildren and friends, yesterday we heard about Israel Bonds. If you aren’t ready to go to Israel, but your teenagers are, please talk to me about USY Pilgrimage and Ramah Israel Seminar. Both are phenomenal summer programs that will have your teens immersed in Israeli life and culture, and they might even come back knowing how to lead the entire weekday and Shabbat service! Now that is OWNING their Jewish experience.

As I mentioned at the start, the Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah is about Abraham and Sarah, Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael. Within the stories of those ancestors is our story, the story of Israel and all of its challenges. We learn from the very beginning that Abraham’s life will not be simple or peaceful. Neither are our lives, nor the lives of Israel and her people.

As Americans, it is easy for us to watch from afar, to see Israel as a vacation spot or a place from our history. While Israel can be both of those, it is so much more. I hope this morning I have inspired you to find the beauty, the holiness, the power of the land and people of Israel. Join us and enrich your Jewish life. In the coming weeks, we will have informational meetings.

I wish you a sweet, health, happy New Year. May you be written in the Book of Life.