Sermon First Day of Rosh Hashanah
Herzl’s Vision, Israel’s Future
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I went to Mount Herzl this summer. Actually, I went twice, but the first time it just turned out to be a place to turn around on my walk. I went by myself, arriving after walking a few miles in the super hot Israeli summer heat. I passed the buses full of IDF soldiers unloading and preparing for a tour–yes, of the graves of the political leaders of the country, but more poignantly for them, of their peers who had lost their lives in service to the country.
I wasn’t meeting anyone at Har Herzl; I just felt a strong draw to spend time there. It became clear to me on my approach to the most famous spot–the grave of Binyamin Ze’ev Herzl, Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, the great visionary for a Jewish state. His grave–large, square, black, with just his name–Herzl; surrounded by flowers–against the backdrop of the bright white plaza, empty on that morning but with the capacity to host hundreds for formal state ceremonies. I found myself lingering there, with nobody else in sight, and asking: Oy Herzl, what would you even think of Israel today?
That question had been sitting heavily on me the entire time I spent in Israel–all 6 weeks–as the #1 topic of conversation has been, and continues to be, the Netanyahu government’s judicial overhaul/reform and the huge protests across the country.
You may recall that Herzl penned the pamphlet The Jewish State in 1896, and just a year later convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, consisting of some 200 delegates from all over Europe. Just one month after the Congress concluded, Herzl reflected in his diary–listen to this:
Were I to sum up the Basle Congress in a word- which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly- it would be this: ‘At Basle, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. If not in 5 years, certainly in 50, everyone will know it.’
It’s stunning how accurate he was.
Today, at the dawn of our new year 5784, in the year that Israel has reached the milestone of 75 years young, I invite us to reflect on Herzl’s vision, what this country has been able to achieve in its first 75 years, what’s happening now, and the essential follow-up question: what about the next 75?
Theodore Herzl wasn’t religious by any stretch of the imagination. He was a journalist in Vienna, and thus very aware of the plight of the Jews in Europe. We’re not talking about the Shoah, the Holocaust–he lived and was active in the late 19th century; there was rampant antisemitism in his day, too. Famously, Herzl’s watershed moment was an event known as the Dreyfus Affair, in which Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish French army captain, was falsely accused and found guilty of providing military secrets to the German government. If that could happen in France, one of the more liberal countries at the time, Herzl didn’t see much hope for the Jews. Here it is, in his own words:
We have sincerely tried everywhere to merge with the national communities in which we live, seeking only to preserve the faith of our fathers. It is not permitted us. In vain are we loyal patriots, sometimes superloyal; in vain do we make the same sacrifices of life and property as our fellow citizens; in vain do we strive to enhance the fame of our native lands in the arts and sciences, or her wealth by trade and commerce. In our native lands where we have lived for centuries we are still decried as aliens…
Herzl’s vision was simple: A sovereign state for the Jewish people, in our historic homeland of Palestine. Achieving such a dream… well, that’s the whole of the Zionist project.
Herzl knew his vision could only come to fruition with the mass buy-in of the Jewish people, not to mention the partnership–or at least approval–of the leading nations of the world. Sitting here in the year 5784/2023, it’s so easy to see why everyone would want to jump on the bandwagon, but at the time, it was a tough sell for many. I mean, how many of us have up-and-moved to a place that didn’t yet exist?!
Let me tell you a story that illustrates one of the key PR moves of the early Zionist movement.
I heard it from Rabbi Ed Feinstein, long-time rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in LA. He was talking about Max Nordau, the psychologist-turned-Zionist leader to whom Herzl was sent for a few sessions when he began talking about the creation of a Jewish State. During their third session of Herzl expressing his ideas, perhaps talking about some of the resistance he was encountering, Nordau reportedly stopped him mid-sentence and said: “Dr. Herzl, if you’re crazy, then I’m crazy, too.”
Herzl subsequently invited Nordau to deliver the keynote speech at the Basel Zionist Congress, and Nordau did something extraordinary, something that spoke to the very fear so many Jews possessed. He redefined the Jewish term galut, exile, and suggested that it didn’t only mean physical removal from the Promised Land, but could also be seen as a psychological category. Psychological galut, exile, is that feeling that we don’t belong anywhere, that we’re not safe anywhere, that we walk through life in fear, that we’re always tentative and afraid we’ll be judged extra harshly for what we say. I’d imagine many of us relate to this notion quite personally. If the pull to build up a Jewish State wasn’t enough to motivate the Jews of Europe, then the notion of psychological galut gave them the shove they needed to leave behind their current situation.
A brief comparison of the world Jewish population tells the inspiring story: In 1880, 88% of the world’s Jews spanned Europe and Russia, a mere 4% lived in the States, not even 1% lived in Palestine, and 8% lived in other countries. A decade ago, in 2014, 10% of the world’s Jews live in Europe and Russia, 39% live in the States, 9% live in other countries, and–here it is–a whopping 42% live in Israel. We did it.
Herzl died in 1904–much too young. We can only imagine how wildly elated he would have been to witness the establishment of the Jewish State, to see it be built up over 75 years. It gives me the chills. Israel is exactly what he dreamed of–a sovereign state for the Jewish people, a place where no Jew is in a state of galut–not physical exile nor psychological exile. Israel is a country like any other–not perfect, but beautiful. It is its people, its land and history, its culture, its transportation and infrastructure, its workforce, its innovation, its politics, its military, and yes, its conflicts. It is its unique Jewish character. It is a homeland for the Jewish people the world over. What it is not is temporary. Israel is here to stay, and thus has fulfilled–and far surpassed–its original Zionist dream. Each of us should feel heart-bursting pride at this world-changing achievement.
I know when I’m in Israel, there are elements of daily life there that make me happy, giddy even. You already know I’m crazy about the Hebrew language. One of the greatest achievements of the last 75 years has been the reawakening of this ancient language and its transformation into a modern spoken language, with new words being innovated each day. Did you know there’s a word for using Facebook? L’fasbeck. How about pacemaker? Kotzev lev. Vegan? Tiv’oni. The ability for the Jewish people to communicate in our shared language–a language that finds its roots in our sacred scriptures–to me, is really a dream come true.
So many things I love about Israel are the ways in which it implements Jewish values and traditions on a grand scale. The national calendar is the Jewish calendar–Shabbat is Shabbat, and Jewish holidays are the national holidays. Buses don’t run in Jerusalem at all on Shabbat; and as I learned this summer, they run coach buses for free in Tel Aviv for those 25 hours! Schools and businesses are open Sunday through Thursday; Friday is already the weekend, and everyone wishes each other Shabbat Shalom, no matter your plans for Friday night. Nobody needs to worry about the December Dilemma; it’s totally normal to appreciate the Christmas lights at the YMCA and also stroll through the streets to admire the chanukiyot in each window, all while munching a fresh sufganiyah (doughnut) with the filling and topping of your choice. Israel is a place where each Israeli is personally invested in the well-being of the State and most have served the nation through military or national service. It is the site of so much Jewish history, and Israelis grow up learning it by taking field trips and hiking the land. Even the most secular Israeli has a working knowledge of the Tanach, our Bible, because it’s part of the public school system. And on and on and on… None of this is coincidental; each element of Israeli society was part of the vision of early Zionist leaders who dedicated themselves to realizing Jewish values in a sovereign nation.
And it all sets the scene for what’s to come. But first, we must talk about what’s happening now, because it’s quite significant.
Israel is experiencing a period of intense crisis, and the crisis isn’t coming from a neighboring country or a terrorist organization. It is situated within Israel, and it’s about the very core of what Israel is, and what it will be.
Now, just to make sure we’ve all got the facts, here are a few bullet points about this crisis:
- Israel’s governmental system has 2 branches, not 3–the Knesset/Parliament and the Supreme Court. For the last 75 years, the Supreme Court has had the legal power to review any law made by the Knesset if it is deemed unreasonable.
- For the last year, leading members of the governing coalition have been pushing for a major overhaul of Israel’s judicial system, claiming that the Supreme Court has routinely ruled on matters outside its purview. Maybe. The proposed overhaul would severely reduce the Supreme Court’s oversight capabilities and would permit the Knesset–not an impartial committee–to appoint judges to the Supreme Court.
- For the last 36 weeks, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been protesting this overhaul, peaking over the summer with a 4-day march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. There are protests each night in major cities, and on Saturday nights in every city.
- The first phase of the overhaul–the revocation of the Reasonableness Doctrine, was passed by all 64 members of the coalition on July 24 of this year. None of the liberal members of the Knesset were present; they had all walked out in protest prior to the vote.
These are the facts. In the background, you probably know, is the fact that the Prime Minister is under investigation for corruption, and it’s rather suspect for him to be changing laws that would work in his favor by empowering the Knesset members who support him.
Although the details are different, the political dynamic is intimately familiar; it’s just like our own here at home, in the United States. Gone are the days of public discourse; that’s been replaced by the all-too-familiar dynamic of listening to the news you agree with and the speakers who say what you want to hear, and simply not being able to listen to anyone with a differing viewpoint.
And that makes me deeply sad for Israel, for Israelis.
The question at the heart of this crisis is: what kind of country will Israel be? Will it remain the lone liberal democracy in the Middle East, or will it become a country that bends to the will of its leader? Will it remain a State for all Jews, or just the kind of Jews who back said leader?
Were Herzl here today, he would no doubt be deeply troubled by the threat to political stability in the Jewish State, by the rancor that now pervades Israeli society. His dream was a home for the Jewish people–one people–and that oneness doesn’t seem so unified these days. But if I were him, I’d be deeply proud of the citizens who are participating with passion in their democracy.
What will happen in the near future? No Israeli I asked has an answer. Things feel stuck, and Israelis continue to dig in their heels. My guess is that something in the governing coalition will crack and Israel will head again to the polls; perhaps the election will produce a different result and lead to some healing. One can hope.
Here’s the thing. This crisis won’t last forever. It simply can’t. It will be a chapter in the history books, and the way out remains to be seen. And when this chapter closes, I hope and pray that Israel may be poised to dream its way into the next 75 years. After all, Zionism as an enterprise has always been aspirational, right? Herzl dreamed of the creation of a Jewish State: Im tirztu, ein zo aggadah, “If you will it, it is no dream.” Zionism, tziyonut, is a natural outgrowth of the yearning to be restored to the Promised Land–see the entire Torah and every page of the siddur.
Now the question is: What comes next? What are the next aggadot, the next dreams, to which Israel could aspire over the next 75 years?
I’ll suggest two of my own. I invite you to muster all of your imagination and love for Israel and articulate your own. You can plan for that conversion over lunch today.
The Jewish State would embrace the fullness of the Jewish People. What would that look like?
In the next 75 years, Israel could achieve confidence and trust in the breadth of the Jewish people, releasing its ultra-Orthodox iron grip on tradition. It could finally release the remaining galut – psychological exile – and lean in to the unique and varied ways Israelis do Jewish. Sure, Israel has always been the homeland of the Jewish people, but I’d love to see that homeland offer equal recognition, financial support, and rabbinic salaries to Jews of all streams, colors, and backgrounds. Masorti/Conservative and Progressive/Reform communities would have the funding to support Israelis in their daily and weekly Jewish lives, not to mention during the extreme highs and lows of their time on this earth. All rabbis would be free to officiate at marriages, divorces, and conversions; no Israeli would need to fly to Cyprus for a non-Orthodox wedding (unless of course they wanted to). And each of us would truly feel that we have a place in our people’s home. Nice dream, right?
Israel would have a strong and lasting peace with her neighbor state, Palestine.
You know, we’re approaching the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, and just 50 years ago, nobody could have envisioned a cessation of conflict with Israel’s neighbors, let alone trade and travel agreements. Today, not only does peace reign between Israel and Egypt and Jordan, and more recently with Bahrain, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates; but even relations with Saudi Arabia are on the table! Things are different with the Palestinians, but that doesn’t mean that a peaceful end to this decades-long conflict isn’t possible. In the spirit of these holy days, I submit that it will only happen when both parties feel safe and secure, have stable and compassionate leadership, are willing to trust, to admit their mistakes–even going back to 1948–and to forge a new kind of relationship. It will take shedding those last bits of psychological galut to be brave enough to do what’s needed to make peace a reality. We all know that the occupation is not sustainable forever. Israel knows it, too. The occupation only comes to an end when Israel feels confident enough to be the bigger partner and make room for the State of Palestine. Now that peace would be the crowning achievement of Israel’s next 75 years. Herzl would absolutely approve.
Thinking back to that morning I spent on Har Herzl, I remember feeling a deep gratitude for the tremendous contributions and sacrifices each person buried there had made. Each leader built up the nation; each soldier died defending it. What would Herzl think of the state that Israel has grown to be? Without a doubt, I think he would be proud of its passionate people and the place of belonging it offers for so many of the world’s Jews, and I also think he would agree that there is always more work to be done. As we enter this new year, as Israel celebrates 75, I invite each of us to dream our Zionist dream, and then find a way to participate in it. Im tirtzu, ein zo aggadah. If you will it–if we will it–it is no dream.