This was my Shabbat sermon for Parashat Va-etchanan, Shabbat Nachamu, delivered at Temple Beth Shalom, Austin, TX.
On my summer vacation, I slept with shoes by the bed. As a former Californian, the land of earthquakes, this is nothing new to me. And still this was entirely different. As those of you who use social media and follow me know, I’ve just returned from a trip to Israel. My wife, Rabbi Denise Eger was co-leading a group of LGBTQ Christian clergy with an organization called A Wider Bridge. This group connects the LGBTQ community in the United States with the LGBTQ communities in Israel. Our trip started in Jerusalem and last Shabbat we were in Tel Aviv and then in the Galilee region in the north.
I am very blessed to tell you that I’ve traveled to Israel so many times I lost count as to what number trip this was. From the time I was 17 years old when I participated in Alexander Muss to today, whenever I am able to, I go to Israel. For my first year of rabbinical studies at the Hebrew Union College, staffing a birthright trip, leading congregational trips, I do not need an excuse. I love Israel.
I love the rolling hills, the coastlines of the Mediterranean, the Dead Sea and the Kinneret the Sea of Galilee that are so beautiful. I love the barrenness of the Negev desert juxtaposed by the ingenuity of the scientists and hard working people who made the desert bloom to produce life. I love the creativity of the scientists and the technology that now produces most of Israel’s drinking water through desalinization instead of from freshwater sources like the Jordan River. Fruits and vegetables taste better, the dairy products are phenomenal in Israel. The chocolate is pretty good too. I love shopping at Machane Yehuda or any of the open-air markets, is fun and delicious. It is so powerful to read a passage about King Saul on Mt. Gilboa and then going for a hike on the mountain or reading about Elijah the prophet in Carmel and seeing the ridge near the city of Haifa.
And don’t even get me started on Hebrew. I love the Hebrew language, speaking it sometimes poorly, understanding how new words are constructed, even. One of the main shopping streets in Tel Aviv is Dizengoff after the first mayor. When one shops on that specific street the Hebrew word is l’hezdangef – to shop on Dizengoff! Genius. There is so much that I love about Israel. I cannot wait to travel with you as we take a congregational mission to Israel next May, May 30 to June 7, 2023. I cannot wait to share with you this place that I love and to be with you as you discover for yourselves your own love list about Israel.
And like I love my sibling, there are things that make my relationship with Israel complex. As safe and ‘at home’ as I feel in Israel, I know that is not the experience of every person all the time. There is tremendous poverty, our Reform and Conservative congregations struggle against the chokehold of the Orthodox establishment that seeks to minimize our presence, our voice, and our rights. Israeli Arab citizens do not have all of the rights that they ought to and then there’s the situation. The “matzav”, the situation, the Occupation is ever present. Israel is not a perfect place. I do purport to you that everything is visible through rose-colored glasses. I am not naive and you ought not be either.
On my summer vacation, I slept with shoes by the bed.
Why, you ask? Because I was abroad I do not know what was reported on the news here so let me fill you in briefly. Last Monday, Israel arrested the leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist organization in the West Bank. Tragically in the raid, a 17 year old was killed in exchange of fire. Tuesday, fearing retaliation for the arrest, Israel closed the roads in the south near Gaza. Israeli residents were told to stay home near their bomb shelters. They were only permitted to go to work if their office had a shelter. Tensions were very high all week and last Friday, Israel launched operation Breaking Dawn going after specific targets in Gaza. Friday afternoon Palestinian Islamic Jihad began launching rockets into Israel. Iron Dome, Israel’s missile defense system goes to work shooting down rockets that threaten any population in Israel. Last Friday as I prepared for Shabbat I could hear the booms of Iron Dome launching and the subsequent sound of it stopping a rocket.
Our group’s itinerary changed. We did not go to Sderot on the border with Gaza. We could not travel to Ramallah to meet with Palestinians. We made alternative plans and I always knew where I would go if I heard the siren to get to a shelter. I sent a text message to my dad and my sister to let them know that I was fine and what was going on in Israel and half-joked that international text messaging wasn’t available during my year in Israel during the second intifada. And I slept with shoes by the bed in case we needed to move to the hotel’s bomb shelter in the middle of the night.
In three days more than 1100 rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza. Sadly more than 200 fell in Gaza harming innocent Palestinians. More than 990 of them crossed into Israel and Iron Dome intercepted more than 380 of them, a 96% accuracy rate. And then there was a ceasefire.
Last Sunday was Tisha b’Av. The day we commemorate the destruction of the first and second Temple in Jerusalem. It is a day for mourning, weeping. It is also a reminder of baseless hatred. Our tradition teaches that it was this baseless hatred – sinat chinam – that led to the Temple’s destruction. And this year on Tisha b’Av a ceasefire was brokered.
This Shabbat for Jews throughout the world is known as Shabbat Nachamu. After Tisha b’Av, the sadness, the emotion, and the mourning we turn again to the Prophet Isaiah to learn. This special haftara begins “נַחֲמ֥וּ נַחֲמ֖וּ עַמִּ֑י יֹאמַ֖ר אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶֽם׃” – “Comfort, O Comfort My people says your God. Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call out to her, for her term of service is ended, her crime is expiated.” It is not clear to any of the scholars who the prophet is speaking to, who precisely it was at the time that Isaiah sought to bring consolation. What is known is that it was needed then. And I can tell you assuredly that it is needed now, too. The Israeli and Palestinian peoples need comfort. We need assuredness that even in the midst of the complexities of our day, the complexities in our beloved Israel, the difficulties and the strife in our country, in our communities, and families, and in ourselves we can know solace.
On this Shabbat Nachamu may we be peace builders. May we find peace in our hearts and hold it within and share it with others. May each of us have the opportunity to travel to Israel, to meet peacemakers and to be peacemakers. And may we only sleep with shoes by the bed if it is going to give us a peaceful night’s rest. Amen.