Rabbi Yonatan Gordis Or Shalom
Yom Kippur Dvar Torah 5775 / 2014 Vancouver, BC Canada
Just about two months ago, on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Av, a small holiday often called the Jewish day of love, we gathered on our back porch with about fifteen friends to discuss this past summer. Under this summer’s Vancouver blue skies and mountain backdrop, we talked about how difficult the battle between Israel and Gaza had been for us. Most of all, we spoke about how the summer violence and the social media frenzy around them had left many of us silenced. We had found ourselves unable to find voice in fear of being quickly taken down by others, regardless of where we stood or didn’t stand around the conflict. It was a powerful, validating and comforting meeting of friends.
We thought to come out of that meeting with a “to do” and agreed that most important was to ask Vancouver’s rabbis if they were to speak about Israel during the High Holidays, to speak of it with complexity. Wary of how challenging the group edit of the letter would be we let it go, but I, as one of those rabbis, decided that it is my obligation to speak about Israel today, hopefully with some complexity.
I want to speak, not of the complexity of politics, but of the complexity of the soul as it deals with Israel. I believe the soul is made of metaphors. And I believe that the growth of soul occurs through the metaphors in our lives. It is no wonder that the poets and the mystics deal – the masters of metaphor – are so concerned with the soul. Metaphors form the very core of spiritual life, particularly in Judaism, and following this past summer, I am saddened and worried for us. I fear that we are at grave risk of losing the most valuable gift we as a people have ever received, the gift of the metaphor of Israel.
To a degree, I want to talk about my Israel. I grew up in an actively Zionist home, lived in Israel for a few years as a child, for nearly twenty as an adult, became an officer there, became a rabbi there, was married beside the walls of the Old City, became a father there. It is a deep love, and stones alleys and walls of Jerusalem know me deeper than any other place does.
However to a larger degree, I want to talk about our Israel, the shared one. It is hard to say we have a shared Israel in our day and age. People disagree about almost every aspect of the country. What inspires one disgusts the other. And vice versa. A shared Israel? That seems to be the purview of dreams these days. However a shared Israel, a core foundation stone of our world, is what we are at risk of losing and that is what I want to talk about today – the risk of losing Israel.
I believe Israel’s sustainability and durability will not be found in high tech companies, planes, drones, iron domes, or even the incredible spirit of the residents of the south who live impossible lives in fear of metal falling from the sky. Its sustainability lies in the power of the metaphor of Israel to the Jewish people. Yes, thousands of years of an effective and deep metaphor, and we, in our generation, run the risk of losing it.
This summer hit us deep in the belly. Took the air out of our lungs. We were struck, put into some sort of emotional shock. Many of us were silenced. And others became off-settlingly vocal in one extreme direction or another. Critique became betrayal. Ask someone a clarifying question about Israel, and it was quite likely that he or she would publically question your loyalty.
Once upon a time, for most of all time, Israel was a dream. It was a metaphor. It started long ago – thousands of years ago – and has for relatively brief periods been experienced as a literalized metaphor.
Throughout our history as a clan, then as nation, Israel has been the metaphor for human striving. It starts with the very first commandment to the first Jew, to Abraham when he is told Lekh Lekha – stride forward to a land, which I will reveal to you. In Abraham’s life the walking forward (and his ability to welcome strangers as he was on the path) that defined him more than the destination – the striving motion towards a sense of home. Since then, we have walked in his footsteps or perhaps beside him.
This sense that all humans yearn for a return to home, to an ingathering, is not unique to Jews. It is, my friends, the human condition.
Even the writers of the Talmud, 2,000 years ago, understood that the journey is often more important than the destination. In Tractate Brakhot, the tractate that discusses blessings, there is a section that deals with what direction a Jew should face when praying. It’s Talmudic Waze. In short, it says that if you are outside of the Land of Israel, face Israel. So if you are in Vancouver, we face east. In Nairobi, we face north. In New Delhi west… Etc. And then it tells us, if you are in Israel, face Jerusalem, in Jerusalem face the Temple Mount. If on the Temple Mount face the Temple, if in the Temple, face the curtain (behind which is the Holy of Holies). And… if you have gone behind the curtain (yes, you are imagining the Wizard of Oz), close your eyes and imagine you are back on the other side facing the curtain! You see, there is no there there for us. It is all in the striving – not necessarily the reaching. And what if you can’t tell direction? That same piece of Talmud tells us that if you can’t see the stars or are lost, and you don’t know north from south, close your eyes and direct your heart to the Divine. You see, it is the striving again, the striving towards the Divine, towards a place of comfort.
Why is this reaching the Promised Land so elusive? It was elusive to our ancestors who left Egypt, to Moses himself, and to almost every Jew who has ever lived. Why? Because there is perhaps more power in the striving and perhaps because it’s simply not happening yet.
All of us, we humans, are striving for safety, security, comfort, dissolution of our loneliness, witnessing. We are striving to feel home. For Jews, perhaps the greatest gift we have received is a vehicle to serve as a mirror for this yearning. What we yearn for inside (and around us) is portrayed by Israel throughout our tradition.
Now, you might find yourself seeing a dichotomy here. There is that dreamy poetic Land of Israel. Some might call it the Heavenly Jerusalem. And there is the reality of Israel today, some might call it the Earthly Jerusalem. And they don’t resemble each other that much.
You should know that we are not the first generation to have trouble with the manifestation of the metaphor. Even for the mystics and poets it has not been so easy to make the transition.
Reb Nachman of Breslov, my beloved teacher who passed away in 1810, yearned from his childhood to go to the Land of Israel. It lay at the root of some of his deepest Torahs. He tried and tried and finally, on a journey replete with bandits and storms at sea, he made it to the port of Haifa. The story tells that he stepped off the boat onto the dock, looked around for a minute or two and then said, “Ok. I’m good.” And he proceeded to re-board the ship. He was ultimately convinced to stay in Israel for a few months and would for the rest of his life repeat the phrase, “Wherever I am walking, I am walking to the Land of Israel.” He understood the depth of the yearning’s importance, perhaps even more important than actualizing the yearning.
Another Hassidic rebbe, Reb Avraham Dov of Avritch, known to many by the title of his book, the “Bat Ayin,” spent most of his life in Europe. Every year, a schnorer (in English a fundraiser or development professional) would appear in his synagogue raising money for the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. “You should see it,” the schnorer would tell. “In the Land of Israel, every stone in the street glistens, it is strewn with jewels.” After years of hearing the stories, the rebbe, when he was 70 years old in 1830 moved to Tzfat, the holy city in the north. These were hard times. In the course of their time there, there were numerous plagues that wiped out much of the city’s population and even a tremendous earthquake which brought down much of the small city (other than his yeshiva). These were hard hard times. One day, in walks the schnorer to the Bat Ayin’s yeshiva. The Bat Ayin leads him outside, grabs him by the lapels and says, “What were you talking about? What were you talking about? Yes, we have the holy Kotel in Jerusalem and yes, we have the graves of our forefathers and foremothers, but this place…. This place..! These streets aren’t paved with jewels! There are no diamonds or gold!” The schnorer looked the Bat Ayin deeply in the eyes, paused, and said, “You don’t see?” The story is told that the Bat Ayin then went into forty days of solitary meditation, and when he emerged, face glowing, he said to his students, “Now, I see. Now, I see.”
You see, the meditative access to the metaphor was vital for him to see Israel in a different way. Because the reality, the literalization of metaphor, doesn’t always work so well.
One of the most poetic and mind-blowing lovers of the metaphor was the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, R’ Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook. R’ Kook who passed away in 1935 believed that Jews would give rise to a world-shifting dynamic with their ingathering in Israel. He felt that we would hit our most moral when inhabiting the land. In incredibly poetic and inspiring language, he took the metaphor and the yearning for Israel and wrote prolifically about what would happen if and when we could actually gather. He worked to evolve the concepts imbedded within our return to Zion, the alchemical transformation that would happen in the world. In my translation which does not do him justice, listen to what he had to say.
The desire towards good for all beings (with no limitations in the world – in terms of quality or quantity) is at the core of the Jewish people’s gathering in Israel. (Orot p. 139 – Orot Yisrael)
Despite inevitable struggles, R’ Kook believed that the realized metaphor would lead to the betterment of all of humankind.
R’ Kook’s son R’ Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook grew up in the Land of Israel from the age of 13 and made some clear choices about where to go with his father’s Torah. He taught that we had a responsibility to inhabit the land first – first settle and build literal homes, and the rest – the spiritual and other results – will naturally catch up. R’ Tzvi Yehuda was one of the founding spiritual fathers of the settler movement. The early settlers saw (and most still see) their work as holy work, some even believing it is for the betterment of all of humanity. They believe that their life work is to bring the metaphor home, to the ground. And we all know that a metaphor literalized is a difficult thing to manifest well.
I would be remiss if I did not grant my children the metaphor that Israel has represented to Jews since we left Egypt. Sporadically realized throughout history, I want them to hold an image of an ingathering of our people that betters our family and the world.
I would also be remiss if I fail to tell them that we are not done, that the Earthly Jerusalem has not yet become what the Jewish metaphor demands that it be. The Earthly Jerusalem is not yet manifesting many of our dreams. The Earthly Jerusalem cannot yet hold the vastness of our yearnings – that’s simply not how it is working. The Earthly Jerusalem may address parts of us but not all, as all of us know.
You may say to me – it’s easy to talk in lofty things, the poet things, about the metaphor of Israel – home, yearning, gathering. But how is today’s modern Israel, the Israel of this summer, a spiritual mirror? It’s a different Israel. It may touch us, at times inspire us or pain us, but that is not the same thing as a serving as a lens on our selves. Because really, is it possible that my internal life could be as stuck, confused, inspiring, disappointed, passionate and complex as the modern Israel? That’s a scary thought.
Though there is a state, though there is sovereignty, a state more democratic than any other in the Middle East, a place that strives for good on many levels, I believe that we are still stuck in the desert. We are wandering still. We are not actualizing R’ Kook’s vision. We have not yet entered the metaphoric promised land, where the reverberating power of Jewish ethics will be manifest like R’ Kook said. You see Israel is a metaphor for my soul. My soul still struggled to find home. How many of us in this room are still wandering, still wondering how to get home.
Standing before Yizkhor today, you know what I mean by yearning for something, for someone. You know the heart broken or the hole in your life that feels unfillable. Each of us knows longing for ingathering. Each of us yearns for a return home. You see, mortality and memory as well are the stuff of the poets.
One might say that the metaphors are risky, that they are messianic in their striving. And the truth is that that is why the messianic metaphor is so powerful a part of our heritage – that it does have far away (perhaps unreachable) expression. The metaphor of yearning for a new age – some might call it a rectified age, a messianic age – this metaphor is quite intentionally set very far away for us. We Jews are process and forward looking people. We are strivers more than reachers.
I want to challenge you to realize that even the modern Israel is a metaphor for our, often difficult, lives. For a final moment or two, I want to bring you back to the tensions of this past summer. And I want to take you back to these past weeks of tshuvah that you have been doing, even the tshuvah you are doing today, here in this holy gathering.
Maybe the summer in Israel has something to say about that, perhaps it is still some sort of a mirror. I invite you to close your eyes and to answer some questions to yourself.
- Over this past summer and in your tshuvah, have you opted for seeing things in black and white, perhaps most of all because you are tired?
- Over this past summer and in your tshuvah, have you wielded your power in ways that you would later regret?
- Over this past summer and in your tshuvah, have you been pretty certain that pretty much no one in the world understands you?
- Jewish law has a concept of recidivism – that the test of tshuvah is if the same person finds herself in the same situation and commits the same transgression again. This past summer and in your tshuvah, have you been the same person, in the same situation, committing the same transgression?
- Over this past summer and in your tshuvah, have been lured into isolation?
- Over this past summer and in your tshuvah, have you judged your family harsher than anyone else has, maybe even felt ashamed of them?
- Over this past summer and in your tshuvah, have you brushed transgressions under the mat and been infuriated by those who mention them?
- Over this past summer and in your tshuvah, have you perceived critique as betrayal?
- Over this past summer and in your tshuvah, have you not allowed your love and your narrative to evolve and change their shape over time?
- Over this past summer and in your tshuvah, have you forgotten that the divine has really deep pockets?
Yet again, Reb Nachman said it best, “In every place that I walk, I am walking towards the land of Israel.” We and Abraham and countless other Jews in history and today are striving.
You see, this is not just about politics of land. It is about the politics of your soul. We want to be headed home. We want an ingathering, to reduce our loneliness, to reduce our sense of being victims and being threatened. We want to be just in the world. We want to model a nobility that inspires and raises all beings. That is the Israel, whether it is full or real or not, metaphoric or not, to which I am walking.
I would like to conclude with the words of perhaps our greatest poet. And one of Israel’s most challenged political leaders. Some 3,000 years ago, King David meditated. The power of his meditation raised those winds that those of us who love Jerusalem know so well, and the winds blew, moving the strings of his harp. Hearing the music, he wrote the words. We know them as the Psalms.
Psalm 126, loosely translated.
A song of ascending:
When God returned, the return of Zion, we were like dreamers.
Then laughter and joy filled our mouths and tongues,
Then the nations said, “Whoa, God has done great with these folks,
God’s going to do great with us too.” And we were joyful.
Those who plant in tears will harvest in joy.
Back and forth in tears under the burden of planting,
We shall return home, carrying the bounty.
My friends, I beg you not to let political struggles overshadow your spiritual ones. Don’t forsake either struggle. Don’t forsake the power of Israel as it has been for thousands of years because of the actions in one or two lifetimes of limited leaders. I believe that once we embrace the metaphoric Israel (thousands of years old) and not just the literal Israel (66 years old) and its potential meaning for us, we will find our voices again. Voices in prayer, voices in declaration of what is right and true and necessary, voices of lives well lived, voices in a communal but also very personal journey. We will hear and speak differently, and we will, God willing, usher in a new and desperately needed chapter in all of our lives.
May our prayers move us in that direction.
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