Unearthing the layers of Israel

Here is the sermon I delivered on Kol Nidre at Temple Sinai Congregation of Toronto.

I love to read.  I always have at least one book going, sometimes more, and then there are the magazines.  I probably inherited this trait from my father who is also a voracious reader.  The people at the local library know him by his first name and he knows theirs, too.  My dad probably got his love of reading form his father and mother, but really, who doesn’t love a good story?

Us lovers of a good story also can whet their palates with the texts of Jewish tradition.  And the close study of these texts, just like the close study of any of the classics of English literature reveals more layers, more masterful artistry and more knowledge to be unearthed.

So too, the scholars of Jewish tradition have created a PaRDeS, an orchard of opportunity.  PaRDeS is an acronym for four different levels with which one can delve into a text.  The pshat, the simple meaning or what the text says literally.  Remez is the hinted or allegorical meaning of the text.  Drash is the metaphorical meaning usually ascertained through a story, parable or sermon.  And Sod, the deepest meaning is a secret layer within the text that is often a mystical interpretation.

And this PaRDeS method can be applied to all types of texts.  I recently read in an article by Alex Sinclair and Esti Moscovitz-Kalman in which they suggest a text I never considered before.  The State of Israel is a text.  Israel is “… a Jewish text like all other Jewish texts… We know how to deal with a text that we don’t understand.  We know how to grapple with a text we find problematic.  We know how to incorporate the ideas of texts into our own lives.  We know how to appropriate texts intellectually, spiritually or emotionally, so that we ‘speak in their language’.  We know how to re-interpret texts that have become antiquated.  We know how to juxtapose texts to make them more than the sum of their parts.”[i]

Israel is text.  Just like any great classic text there are parts of the plot that we can like less or more.  There is room for deep analysis.  Characters who make our skin crawl.  Even parts we don’t like are allowed!  We have permission to probe the text and we can use the classical, Jewish, PaRDeS methodology.

I will always remember the first time I saw the glorious Jerusalem skyline.  I was in high school and was taking part in a program where we learned about the history of the Jewish people and would travel to the sites throughout the land.  Yes, it was as amazing as it sounds.  As a group we traveled to Jerusalem, directly to the overlook from Mt. Scopus.  We were prepared for drama as we walked with our eyes closed holding hands with the person in front and behind us so that the big reveal would be simultaneous and dramatic.  We were grouped together and pointed in the correct direction and on the court of three, we were all opened our eyes to the collective “wow.”

The glittering skyline of the Old City on a warm June day is breathtaking.  The Jerusalem stone, that pale limestone with an almost golden hue, sparkled and my sixteen year old eyes took it all in.  I was ready to fall in love with our holy city, and within ten seconds, it happened.  Jerusalem was a city of tremendous beauty.  I was blinded to the reality: the poverty, the religious divide, and the political jockeying of the government at the expense of the ‘average’ Israeli.  I was in love, blind love for the idealized Jewish state.  This love affair was only strengthened through my seven-week experience.

The pshat the simple meaning for me is the memory of that first view.  Yes it is emotional.  The simple meaning can be that way.  It is the first glace, our gut reaction that melds intellect and emotion.

Because I’m a text lover, I have to delve more deeply into the story, and dig deeper.  That is when it gets complicated.  For the hinted meaning within our text expose both vulnerabilities and opportunities.  Recently, Israel has been in the news because of some challenges with the children born in Israel of foreign workers with proper work credentials.  However, when a foreign worker with proper permits has a child in Israel she immediately loses forfeits her work permit and is subject to deportation along with her children.[ii] There are presently 1,200 children subject to deportation.  An inter-ministerial committee charged by Prime Minister Netanyahu created criteria that would permit 800 of these children to remain.  According to this committee, “children who were born in Israel, have lived in Israel for more than five years, speak Hebrew and are registered in Israeli schools, should be granted permanent resident status along with their families.”[iii] However there are 400 children under the age of five that facing deportation.  This news story is an example of one of the pieces of the plot, pieces of the story, elements of our text that is difficult.  So many questions emerge.  How can a Jewish state deport children?

Immigration issues in any country are complicated. This looks bad for Israel in the already biased media and it doesn’t feel like the Jewish State is acting with very Jewish values.  And so we dig deeper.

Rabbis for Human Rights has the right idea as they unpack and explain our text, they drash. Using Israel’s Declaration of Independence Rabbis for Human Rights turned it into something Jews are a bit more comfortable with, a page of Talmud.[iv] The Declaration of Independence states, “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants.”

Just like any great text, the major players in any age speak with one another. David ben Gurion said months before the founding of the Israel, “in the Jewish state we will not be responsible for the Jews alone… but for all the residents of the state in equal measure.  Our concern will no longer be devoted solely to Jewish locales alone, or to the education and health services of the Jewish Yishuv alone – but to every locale.  Jewish and Arab in equal measure, without any discrimination and distinction.”[v] For the past 62 years Israel has lived out the explanation of this text, the drash.  In numerous count documents, Justices of the Supreme Court in Israel have upheld the legal rights of the minority groups in Israel.  As Justice Aharon Barak stated, “Each member of the minorities living in Israel enjoys complete equality of rights.”[vi]

The drash on our text, on Israel, is that yes, there are challenges and problems. However at her core there are these clearly laid out ideals of equality, justice and democracy.  With this knowledge, it is possible that the already existent courts of justice will find an appropriate solution to the 400 children facing deportation.

Yet there’s still another layer.  What is the hidden meaning of the text, the sod, of Israel?  It is best outlined by a Galician Jew, Naftali Imber in his poem, “Tikvateynu”, “Our Hope”.[vii] We know it better as Hatikvah, The Hope, the national anthem of the State of Israel.  Imber wrote,

As long as the heart within,

a Jewish soul still yearns,

and onward towards the ends of the east,

an eye still gazes toward Zion;

Our hope is not yet lost,

the hope of two thousand years,

to be a free people in our own land,

the land of Zion and Jerusalem.

At the core of our text is hope.  Hope that Israel will be a homeland for the Jewish people and a country that will rule with justice, and equality.  Hope that the visions of a sixteen-year old North American teenager upon seeing Jerusalem for the first time will be the experience of all those who make pilgrimages to her.  Hope that the visions described by our prophets will come to fruition.  A belief that the government of Israel will come to understand that the deportation of children is not Jewish and even as we welcome the minority groups within her border, Israel is the homeland of the Jewish people.  Like any great text, there are elements of the story that make us uncomfortable, characters we love to hate, and we hope some heroes in the near future who will give us a peaceful ending to so many years of strife.  Only then can the next piece of our text be created.  Israel is our text.  And she will always be our hope.

Ken y’hi ratzon.


[i] Sinclair, Alex and Esti Moskovitz-Kalman.  “Bringing Conversations about Israel into the Life of American Congregations,” S3KReport.  Fall 2009, Number 6. 1-2.

[ii] http://www.jpost.com/Home/Article.aspx?id=182945.  September 16, 2010.

[iii] ibid.

[iv] www.rhr-na.org/files/RHR-NA_Yom_H’Atzmaut_Israeli_Arabs.pdf.  September 12, 2010.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/hatikva.html.  September 16, 2010.

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About rabbisteinman

I am a rabbi living in North America. I was ordained from HUC-JIR. This is my blog.
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