“My Heart Is in the East:” Israel and Us in 2006-5767

Sermon delivered On Rosh Hashanah Eve 5767 – September 22, 2006, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block


Who among us could avert our eyes from northern Israel this summer? For Toni and me, the war was personal. Rockets landed all around Toni’s brother’s family home in the Galilee. Destruction and potential death fell like rain throughout northern Israel. But rain does not come to the Promised Land in summertime. This summer, a reign of terror came instead.

Throughout the war, my heart repeatedly returned to words penned nine centuries ago, in Spain, by the great Jewish philosopher and poet, Judah Halevy:

My heart is in the East, and I am in the depths of the West.
My food has no taste. How can it be sweet?
How can I fulfill my pledges and my vows,
When Zion is in the power of Edom, and I am in the fetters of Arabia?

The poet bemoaned his lot and the destiny of the Jewish people of his age: They wished to live in the Land of Israel, but they could not. Halevy was blessed to live in a gilded exile: In general, Muslim Spain was good for the Jews. And yet, Halevy sees himself behind prison bars.

Zion is no longer “in the power of Edom,” Halevy’s euphemism for Christian dominion. Israel is a Jewish State. We are not in exile.

And yet, in recent months, Toni and I were not alone, singing the poet’s mournful song. You, too, have relatives in Israel, or you have friends. We were concerned about people to whom we suddenly felt connected, even though we had never met. And so, as the war waxed and waned – as the pundits had their say, to our nods or to our disgust – our hearts were in Israel. But we were here.

Had Judah Halevy been alive in our day, he would not live in America, in the twenty-first century version of medieval Muslim Spain. His poem continues:

It will be nothing for me to leave all the goodness of Spain.
So rich will it be to see the dust of the ruined sanctuary.

Those of us who have spent time in Israel can taste Halevy’s words. A mystical holiness overtakes us in the Jewish State. We may be looking at ruins – the ancient ones, or the destruction that we will see this year, the ruins of 2006 – or we may be viewing the magnificent life of modern Israel. Being in Israel is an experience like no other for the Jew. Would only that Judah Halevy could have seen what I have.

The difference, of course, is that Halevy’s poetry insists that he would move to Israel if he were in our shoes. Few among us ever consider making aliyah. Our hearts are in the east. We are deeply pained when Israel is threatened. We get involved in pro-Israel activities, political and otherwise, and we appropriately increase our contributions. At the same time, we are pleased that our metaphorical hearts are our only body parts residing in the Jewish State. We like living here just fine. Unlike Judah Halevy, giving up the “sweet things” of our native land would be too much for us. We feel blessed to be Americans. We experience no cognitive dissonance about simultaneously living here and loving Israel.

Perhaps we should. Israelis as well as our own neighbors may have a much harder time than we, understanding that our hearts really are in Israel, while our feet are so firmly planted in America.

From the beginning of modern Zionism, a common theme has been shlilat hagolah, “negation of the exile.” The claim is that Jewish life is not real, meaningful or normal outside of the Jewish State. The argument is not usually based in religion, and its strongest advocates generally view themselves as secular. For them, Jewish religious life, existing as a minority, has led only to disaster in the past. The future, in this view, would be no different. Therefore, all Jews who wish to continue to be Jews need to move to Israel.

The idea goes back to Moses. After forty years of wandering, the Children of Israel are about to enter the Promised Land, when two tribes, Reuben and Gad, find fertile land east of the Jordan River. Moses is appalled that they would settle outside of Israel. He accuses them of flouting God’s will and abandoning their people.

Ultimately, though, Moses relents. Perhaps more importantly, the two tribes make an extraordinary offer. They will be the shock-troops – the canon fodder, if you will – the first to enter the Land and conquer the enemy, so that the rest of the Israelites may settle there. Then, they would return to the land that we now know as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, physically living east of the land of their hearts’ desires.

Torah highlights something that we know innately: Humans do have the capacity to care, with every fiber of our being, about a land where we do not live, about a people among whom we do not dwell.

When we see the American flag burned on the streets of hostile capitals, we take the attack personally. When we view the images of rockets falling upon Israel, we react almost as though our own homes were under fire.

When Israel is treated unfairly in the press, we rightly consider the injustice to be our cause, no different than when America is vilified on al-Jazeera.

Our hearts are in the east, even as we remain in the west.

Our connection to Israel is a deeply spiritual one, reaching to the core of our being. As Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of our Union for Reform Judaism, has proclaimed: “The concept of the Jews being one people with a deep connection to the land of Israel is not an ethnic or political idea. It is a religious idea, called into being at Sinai. It is an idea rooted in covenant, commitment, and faith.”

So how will be a modern version of “shock troops,” living our faith like the biblical tribes of Reuben and Gad? How do we get out front, putting ourselves on the line, for the land we love, but where most of us will not live?

Actually, some will make aliyah. Two young men from our congregation, Drew Williams and Phil Weissmann – have committed themselves to life in Israel in the last year. They are in the process of becoming citizens, and plan to serve in the Israeli military. Some cannot remain in the west.

For the rest of us, to the extent we are possibly able, visiting Israel is a mitzvah, not just a good deed but a religious obligation. Now is the right time, whether one has been to Israel previously or would be a first-time visitor. Try telling the teenagers who were in Israel this summer that it’s too dangerous, or give that argument a whirl with their parents. They will tell you that they’ve never had such a life-transforming moment. They may also convince you that they felt safer than they do at home. They will certainly affirm that they have done something of critical importance for our Jewish people, which they will remember for the rest of their lives. Their names are important for you to hear, for they are our own heroes of 2006: Ethan Fox, son of Cynthia and Cary; Jesse Halff, son of Mindi and Glenn; Matt McLean, son of Paula and Scott; Pamela Rodriguez, daughter of Cindy and Joe; and Kathleen Rubin, daughter of Angela and Steve. Like most real heroes, these teenagers were just doing what came naturally to them, what they wanted to do. They continued to do what they were doing, to stick by Israel, in Israel, when others told them they were being foolish. And their parents are to be commended. They need offer no further proof that their hearts are in the east. Their children were there, at a most trying time.

Yes, we must give generously, to our Jewish Federation, and to other causes that support the people of Israel at their time of need, while also strengthening our own Jewish community.

Yes, we should join with others, individually and organizationally, to advocate for Israel in America. We have the responsibility to assure that Israel’s most important ally – our own country, the United States of America – continues in its ardent loyalty to its primary friend and partner in the Middle East. To that end, Toni and I significantly increased our own personal commitment to AIPAC this summer, and I encourage others to do the same.

Whatever our method, each of us, at this penitential season, must review our efforts on behalf of Israel. Have we done enough to support our fellow Jews in our Jewish State? If we find our actions insufficient, now is the time, in these ten days of repentance, to change our ways, to address our sin. Let us resolve to do more for Israel in the year ahead.

Each of us will find our own way. Even as we continue to live in the west, though, the most important thing we can do for Israel is to be there, soon, at least for a little while.

Not just because tourism is one of Israel’s most important economic generators, which it is. Not just because that industry, which had strongly rebounded before the summer, is threatened, and with it, Israel’s economy.

Not just because seeing their American brothers and sisters in Israel, unafraid, will bolster the spirits of the people of Israel, which we will.

And not just because we will strengthen our own Jewish knowledge and commitment by being in Israel, which we will.

We must go to Israel, and we must go now, because, quoting and paraphrasing the poet: How can we fulfill our pledges and our vows, when Zion is reeling, and we remain at home?

In a deeply spiritual way, we cannot live our obligations to our Jewish State without being there, heart and body, now more than ever.

In the summer of 1988, I led over forty teenagers from Texas and Oklahoma to Israel. We stood at Mount Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery, beside the graves of those who lost their lives in Israel’s War of Independence. The grave markers read: “Born in Poland. Died at a certain battle in the War of Independence. Age 19.” And so forth. On and on, row on row. Guns had been placed in their hands, with minimal training, as these young Holocaust survivors got off the boats from displaced persons camps. Our group recited the Kaddish. One young man began to sob uncontrollably. As I tried to console him later, he told me that he owed his right to live freely and comfortably as a Jew in Oklahoma, to the young men and women who died at tender ages in 1948.

Our connection to Israel is deep. It is spiritual. It is religious. It is personal. Our hearts are in the east. This year, let our bodies, too, be there. Am Yisrael Chai. The people of Israel, in Israel, yet lives.

Amen.

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