2016-06-30

This essay is adapted from a sermon given on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, September 19, 2001.

Throughout Jewish history, the shofar has called our scattered survivors home to the Land of Israel. Every day, for millennia we have prayed: "sound a great shofar for freedom, and gather our exiles from the four corners of the earth." Whether we interpret those words literally or not, the shofar describes a vision of a Jewish home. Today, the shofar calls us all home to our place in the world; it draws our attention to our brothers and sisters in the Land of Israel.

This year's disastrous events have reinforced Israel's centrality to our sense of self. Over the years, American Jews' identification with Israel has eroded. Ignorance of Jewish history and the events leading to Israel's creation; the rise of Jewish fundamentalism; disaffection from Israeli policies; and the general fading of idealized conceptions of Israel--all these have distanced many American Jews from Israel. Even those of us strongly attached to Israel often have taken it for granted, neglecting the vision which created it and overlooking the sacrifice which has sustained it.

This has been a year of squandered opportunities, not negotiations; a year of mourning, not of celebrating.

But the world has a nasty habit of reminding us just how unbelievable Jewish survival really is. The anti-Jewish and anti-Israel hatred spewed at the UN Conference on Racism reminds us that even now, in the 21st century, much of the world still denies that we are a people with a right to a homeland. It reminds us that those who deny Jewish political legitimacy usually also deny the legitimacy of Jewish identity itself. It reminds us that much of the world still has a frightening, irrational tendency to lay the blame for its problems at our Jewish feet. That reality makes Israel's existence look more miraculous and more critical every day.

Over five decades after Israel's birth, we have yet to fulfill the promise of pre-state Zionism, which imagined that statehood would lead to the world accepting Jewishness as a "normal" and legitimate identity. Early Zionists conceived a safe haven for Jews, a secure refuge from oppression. They struggled to create a vibrant center of Jewish culture, a society in which Judaism, liberated from the diaspora's constraints, could be freshly applied to every aspect of life. They envisioned Israel as a vehicle for unleashing the Jewish people's creative spirit.

Despite the early Zionists' utopian dreams, despite the idealized characterizations on which many of us grew up, Israel is flawed--like every country. As in the creation of most nation-states, its birth inevitably involved displacing other people. It's splintered by ethnic and religious schisms, and is far from embracing religious pluralism. It's often paralyzed by an unwieldy political system, and struggles with environmental concerns. It still lacks a written constitution enshrining its citizens' civil liberties. Despite being the only democracy in the Middle East, Israel is far from realizing its promise of equal rights. Israel is not immune from legitimate criticism.

But each of us individually, and every country in the world, can thank God that perfection isn't a prerequisite to being a blessing. The fact of Israel testifies to the legitimacy of Jewish identity and the survival of Jewish values. The fact of Israel testifies to all the peoples of the world (including, ironically, the Palestinian people) the power of hope in the face of despair. The fact of Israel has enabled us to be, for the first time in thousands of years, "am chofshi b'artzeinu," a free people in our land. The fact of Israel testifies that nothing in this world is impossible.

Despite living in a near-constant state of war, amid hostile neighbors, besieged by terrorism, Israel has forged and protected democratic institutions and freedoms unknown in its neighborhood. In Israel, Jewish identity and culture are normative and Hebrew is again a living language. Persecuted Jews have a haven, and Jewish cultures from around the globe have a common soil in which to take root. Judaism and the Jewish people have a base from which to engage the world's cultures and faiths, an encounter benefiting both our people and the world. We and the world are blessed by Israel's existence.

As Rabbi Michael Melchior, the head of Israel's delegation to the conference in Durban, said, the obscene attempts to delegitimate Israel by tarring it with the brush of racism constitute only the latest episode in a long history of efforts to delegitimate Jewish identity, to make us disappear. None other than Martin Luther King Jr. recognized anti-Zionism as a camouflage for anti-Semitism, when he wrote:

"You declare...that you do not hate the Jews, you are merely 'anti-Zionist.' And I say, let the truth ring forth from the high mountaintops. Let it echo through the valleys of God's green earth: When people criticize Zionism, they mean Jews....Zionism is nothing less than the dream and ideal of the Jewish people returning to live in their own land....And what is anti-Zionism? It is the denial of the Jew of the fundamental right that we justly claim for the people of Africa and freely accord to all other nations of the globe. It is discrimination against Jews because they are Jews. In short, it is anti-Semitism."

In Durban this month, Rabbi Melchior pointed out that anti-Semitism is a unique form of hatred "because it is directed at those of particular birth, irrespective of their faith, and those of particular faith, irrespective of their birth. It is the oldest and most persistent form of group hatred; in our century this ultimate hatred has led to the ultimate crime, the Holocaust.

"But anti-Semitism goes far beyond hatred of Jews. It has arisen where Jews have never lived, and survives where only Jewish cemeteries remain. And while Jews may be the first to suffer from its influence, they have rarely been the last.

"Anti-Semitism reveals the inner corruption of a society, because at its root it is fueled by a rejection of the humane and moral values the Jewish people bequeathed to the world."

Like the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the Munich Olympics, and the Gulf War, this year's descent into despair, culminating in Durban and now the attacks of September 11, has deepened our connection to Israel. We, and all Americans, see more clearly than ever the brutality of many of Israel's adversaries. We see Jews again being caught in a global struggle between two worlds, and accused by both. We see Jews once more being blamed for their own predicament. We see more clearly than ever how our destiny as Jews is tied to Israel. What happens there affects both our fate and our souls.

The shofar reminds us that to be a Jew in the 21st century is still to be a Zionist. It calls us to defend Israel's legitimacy and our people's right to live in a homeland with dignity, security, and peace. The shofar calls us to make sure that we and the next generation fully appreciate the meaning and history of Israel's existence, and stand prepared to make Israel's case in a hostile environment. The shofar calls us to advocate Israel's cause with passion, honesty, and integrity. It charges us to monitor the media vigilently, and to expose untruths and anti-Israel bias when justified. It challenges us to be well-informed about facts and to treat propaganda with suspicion. It teaches us to distinguish between inaccurate and slanted news reports, and the reporting of unpleasant truths which might cast Israel in an unflattering light.

It's so hard to imagine that little more than a year ago, Israel seemed poised to negotiate a final peace with the Palestinians, a compromise finally recognizing the legitimacy of two nationalisms, two competing claims to the same land. But this has been a year of squandered opportunities, not negotiations; a year of mourning, not of celebrating. We have seen our Israeli brothers and sisters bury too many fathers, mothers, and children, losing their sense of security in their markets, their restaurants, and on their roads. We have seen Palestinians continue to die and suffer for want of courageous and visionary leadership. This year again, the shofar is a siren announcing far too many deaths. Today is a day for mourning a year's worth of bloodshed and devastated hopes.

We can hear within the shofar not only a voice calling us home, not only cries of mourning. We also hear the voice of our prophets calling us to face unpleasant truths. "Cry aloud," God charges Isaiah. "Spare not, lift up your voice like a shofar; show my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins" [Isaiah 58:1]. The shofar calls us to account not for our adversaries' many flaws, which we so readily identify; the shofar takes us to task for our own failings, which we're so inclined to minimize. This is not the season for pretending to perfection; it's the season for honest cheshbon ha-nefesh, painfully honest moral accounting.

Jewish tradition associates the shofar's sound with the wailing of the mother of Sisera, one of Israel's mortal enemies in the period of the Judges. This midrash links the shofar with the anguish of our adversary, a pain we must acknowledge today together with our own. Acknowledging the suffering of the Palestinian people, and Israel's part in that suffering, doesn't detract from the justice of Israel's cause. It doesn't justify terrorism, suicide bombings, or a society fostering anti-Jewish hatred and encouraging its children to become martyrs. It doesn't exonerate the Palestinian leadership's tragic failure to guide their people towards compromise and peace. It doesn't excuse Arab leaders' manipulation of Palestinian suffering for their own political purposes. Nor does it minimize our own suffering, or delegitimate our cause. It simply acknowledges a tragic aspect of reality. As the story of the Exodus and of every liberation movement tells us, freedom often comes as the expense of unnecessary and unintended suffering of innocent people. During our seder, we diminish our cups as we acknowledge that tragedy. This is the Jewish way.

The prophetic voice in the shofar reminds us that it's simply Jewish to recognize the Divine Image in every human being, even in those who hate us. It's simply Jewish to mourn the loss of innocent life, be it Jew or Gentile. It's simply Jewish to empathize with those who are vulnerable, even when their leaders bear responsibility for their plight. It's simply Jewish to avoid demonizing the other, inflicting collective punishment, or causing unnecessary suffering and loss, even in the pursuit of justifiable self-defense. The shofar today is a prophetic siren challenging us to support those who labor to preserve these core Jewish values. It asks us to assist Israelis dedicated to protecting human rights for Israelis and Palestinians alike, especially when that work's not popular.

It's simply Jewish to mourn the loss of innocent life, be it Jew or Gentile. It's simply Jewish to empathize with those who are vulnerable.

Some people say the shofar originated as a folk custom, an attempt to frighten off demons with loud noise. We need not believe in demons to recognize the extent to which Israel and now the United States are entangled in a web of demonic forces, and to acknowledge the sense of profound depression which follows in the wake of shattered expectations. But the sound of the shofar testifies to the presence of hope even when we find ourselves stuck in a place of despair.

Tradition requires us to use a ram's horn as a shofar on Rosh Hashanah, to represent the ram which ultimately is sacrificially offered instead of Isaac. As Abraham lifts the knife to slaughter his son, an angel calls out to spare his son. "And Abraham lifted his eyes, and behold, there was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns; so Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as an offering instead of his son (Genesis 22:13)."

Had Abraham not lifted his eyes, had he not been open to unforseen possibilities, he might have sacrificed his son Isaac, and we might not be here at all. The ram represents an option which may not have been there a moment earlier--or which may have been stuck in the thicket all along, just waiting to be noticed. Like Abraham, our people find ourselves today in a dire situation affording no simple exit.

We descendents of Abraham must be ready to follow his example, lift our eyes and search for a way out. Hope and resourcefulness have always been our way. Today, the shofar reminds us that even in the midst of the thicket, even when feeling despair, we must remain open to solutions which hold hope for the peace of all of our children.

As Isaac and Abraham walk towards the mounatin, Isaac asks his father, "Here is the flint and here is the wood--where is the lamb for an offering?" Abraham replies, "God will see to the lamb, my son." Abraham's refusal to yield to despair in the end enables him to envision an alternative, find a ram, and save his son.

"And Abraham named the place Adonai yireh, the Holy One will see, as it is called today, on the mount of the Holy One, there is vision." Many of us have been to that holy mountain. We know the place. Its original name was "Shalem," or wholeness. Abraham renamed it "Yireh," vision. For thousands of years, it has been known by both names--Yerushalayim, Jerusalem, a vision of wholeness.

We have lived through a terrible year of blindness and bloodshed. May the shofar this year remind us of the first Jewish father who, when faced with his son's death, had the faith to lift his eyes and use his vision to find another way. Somewhere in Yerushalayim right now there's a ram caught in the thicket, there's an angel calling out to anguished parents. This year, may the shofar remind all leaders to lift their eyes and open their ears to the call.

more from beliefnet and our partners