By RABBI GERALD L. ZELIZER
This may not be one of my best sermons. It will be one of my most important sermons. It will certainly be one of my hardest sermons – that is hard for me to write. Surely you have heard of the New Testament.
You may not be as familiar with its predecessor The New Covenant. You see, 600 years before Jesus, the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah witnessed the exile of our people from its land and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem – a wrenching national calamity. But Jeremiah promises those exiles who are weeping in Babylon a new covenant from God – a second chance – which will be better than the first one given in the Torah. What is a New Covenant or New Testament? It means that the New improves the Old.
The State of Israel is that New Covenant. The modern State of Israel is the chance to improve on the failure of our ancestors to live out the Torah. Back to Israel as our New Covenant a little later on. Please keep that image in mind.
It was hard for me to write this sermon because I know how fatigued many of us are with Israel. A Jewish student at John Hopkins University said to his professor “Why can’t we just cancel Israel?” What he meant was with all of the problems of Israel in the world and its seeming incompatibility with the rest of the Mid-east, why can’t we get along with the Jewish religion but without Israel?
And of course that question does not come just from students but also from widely read columnists. Richard Cohen in the Washington Post suggested that we Jews may have made a well intentioned mistake trying to affect our national homeland in the Mid-east.
Helen Thomas may have said it, but a lot of people are thinking it, even Jews. There is a growing feeling that Israel is simply not worth the trouble. After all, the Jewish religion existed for 2,000 years without Israel until 1948. Why can’t the Jewish religion exist for 2,000 years after 2010 without Israel? “Why can’t we just cancel Israel?”
I prefer not to speak about Israel this morning in ways that you already know. You know what I would say – double standards; hypocritical critics; anti-Semitism; Jewish self-haters; the threat of Iran. I don’t want to speak in those code words because that is the easy sermon to give. All those themes are accurate, but you’ve heard it before. I want to go beyond that.
The question I want to address is: Can you and I think of Israel with a vision which is different than that to which we are accustomed? Can we come up with a new vision of the State of Israel which inspires us in our kishkes so that we can disseminate it to our children, our grandchildren and beyond? I think we can. Putting aside the remarkable technological and business achievements – the "start-up nation" – I think that we can come up with a vision which grows out of our religious tradition. I think we can.
It is this – the State of Israel gives the Bible the second chance to get it right. We Jews failed to live the social justice blueprint of the Bible. That is why the ancient prophets of Israel say we were exiled in the first place. Now that we have a second opportunity for Jewish sovereignty and Jewish space and Jewish power we have an opportunity to correct our first failure.
Let’s understand what I am saying by thinking about the central figure in the Torah reading of both days of Rosh Hashana. The central figure is usually thought of as Abraham, the first Jew. But I want to suggest that the central figure is really his son. Yitzhak’s role though is opposite in each of these two readings.
This morning the Torah told of his relationship to his brother Ishmael, the progenitor of the Arab nations, through their common father but different mothers, and a conflict between Yitzhak and Yishmael. The conflict is resolved when the Almighty tells Abraham “ki bytzhak yikari lecha zera” – “Through Isaac will the Jewish nation survive.” God guarantees Jewish perpetuity through Isaac.
Then tomorrow, the Torah reading again concerns Isaac this time at Mt. Moriah. But the narrative is very different. God tells Abraham to take Isaac to Mt. Moriah, which is considered to be the center upon which later the Bet Hamikdash (Ancient Temple) was built. God tells Abraham: “v’haalehu sham l’olah” – “Bring Isaac up to Mt. Moriah and turn him into a burnt offering….”
Those two competing descriptions of Isaac in the Torah readings of today and tomorrow reflect in their imagery two competing narratives of the seed of Isaac, the Jewish people and the State of Israel. The first narrative says: “ki bytzhak yikari lecha zera” – “For in Isaac the Jewish people will be assured." The first narrative proclaims the invincibility of the people of Israel and the State of Israel.” The second narrative is: “v’haalehu sham l’olah” – bring him up as a burnt offering forecasts the imminent demise of the people of Israel and the land of Israel.
Rabbi Daniel Gordis, a colleague of mine, suggests how two photographs that we know so well convey those two opposite images – the demise of Israel and the invincibility of Israel. Remember the pictures from the Warsaw Ghetto which showed a young boy dressed in his finery with his hands up in front of Nazis pointing their guns at him? Remember the opposite picture in the post-1967 war, where Jews in tallit and tefillin sit on top of an Israeli tank?
In the first picture the guns were pointed at the Jewish boy: “v’haalehu sham l’olah” – bring him up as a burnt offering – the demise of Israel. In the second, Jewish guns were pointed away and the Israeli soldiers in tallit and tefillin sat on top of the tank – “ki bytzhak yikari lecha zera" – “for through Isaac the seed of Israel shall be assured.”
Can we be nurtured by a different picture? Can we think of Isaac’s seed – the people of Israel and the State of Israel – in ways other than their imminent demise or eternal invincibility? How about this? The Jewish people on its land in Biblical times failed to live the social justice vision of the Bible. Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah castigate the Jewish people and attribute their exile because they exploited the poor, and established hypocritical religious practices.
For that reason, we lost their land and sovereignty. Now, however, we have a second chance to implement the Bible’s plan for social justice. Now we have for a second time land and sovereignty. The State of Israel gives the Jewish religion a second chance. The State of Israel is the New Testament to correct our Old Testament.
Let me give you two examples of the social justice blueprint in the Torah. This was pointed out to me this summer as I studied with Professor Micah Goodman at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, where I studied for two weeks . Professor Goodman is an animated and energetic man in his mid- thirties. He is one of the rising thinkers in Israel on broad issues.
See if his vision inspires you as it did me. He said that Israel is more than a nation of start-up companies. Israel is a nation of start-up ideas. Let’s think together as examples, about two of the grand social ideas of the Bible as possible in the modern State of Israel.
The first social idea which comes from the Bible are the laws of Peah. The rules of Peah – corners – require that the corners of agricultural fields are left for the poor to collect. The owner of the field was prohibited from harvesting the corners of his own field. Sort of like in a commercial economy the owner of a cash account being required to leave the last 10 percent of the account for the poor to take.
We might call that notion tzedaka. But leaving the corners of the field for the poor is not called tzedaka. In the classic texts taking from these corners is called gezal anayim, robbing from the poor something which already belongs to them. So the Torah requirement that an owner of a field must leave the edges of his field for the poor is not an issue of generosity or charity. It is a matter of not owning all the field in the first place! In the Jewish social justice blueprint the notion is that ownership of any kind is limited in the first place, because we are temporary residents on this earth.
The Jewish vision of holy space and property blurs in distinction between those who own the field and those who own the corners the poor. Did ancient Israel actually implement Peah? Maybe. Maybe not. But our rabbis say that these laws are in the Torah “derash l’kabal sechar chazal” – not literal but to help us to change our attitude to those who don’t have what we do.
A second illustration of a social vision through something that you know – Shabbat. There are two versions of Shabbat in the Torah. The most familiar is in Shmot – Exodus – and it speaks about observing Shabbat because God created the Heaven and the Earth in six days and rested on the seventh. The second order of Shabbat, though, is in the Book of Devarim, the fifth book of the Torah.
That version does not connect the Shabbat to creation but emphasizes something very different. In verse 13 of Deuteronomy it says: “But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God in it you shall do no kind of work, you, your son, your daughter, nor your man servant nor your maid servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of the cattle, nor any stranger within thy gates, that your man servant or your maid servant may rest as well as you.”
This version of Shabbat collapses the spatial distance between one person and another. It recognizes the need for everyone including those who have less than we do and who work for us resting and replenishing on Shabbat. This is not communism. The rich are still rich. The poor are still poor. But on Shabbat at least this social hierarchy of time and space collapses. Both in the case of the fields and in the case of Shabbat we who are most powerful and most in control, relinquish some of our power and relinquish some of our control.
So here you have two details. There are many others of the Jewish social justice blueprint when Jews are in their own land. The paradox is that sovereignty and power and Statehood are necessary in order to relinquish sovereignty and power and Statehood – through the laws of Peah, through the requirements of Shabbat. Jewish public space and Jewish time are achieved through Statehood and then through these laws some of that space and some of that time are relinquished.
Sovereignty and power are messy – surely power does corrupt – but Jewish time and space are necessary to test out the Torah and give it this chance to be applied. The State of Israel is our New Testament.
I hear some of you saying to yourselves, “Rabbi, that such a utopian vision but not reality.” But that is not what we see in Israel. Between 2000 and 2007 Israel produced more millionaires per capita in any country, which means it produced the opposite poor in relationship to the rich. I hear you saying that the Arab minorities in Israel get less tax money for services in their towns than do Jewish towns.
I hear you saying that the occupation of the West Bank is brutal when pregnant woman can not pass through checkpoints to get to the hospital. I hear you saying that the poor immigrant labor in Tel Aviv live in squalor when rich Jews in Netanya live in luxury. I say the same things to myself as I think about my sermon today!
Did I say that this radically new vision of Israel describes the Israel of today? No I did not. After all, we all sing the words, “od lo avdah tikvatenu” – “our hope, our vision, has not been lost.” We are talking not about what “is” in Israel, but what “ought’ to be in Israel and hopefully what will be in Israel! After all, Israel is only 62 years old. How much was the vision of this country realized after 60 years?
We know the dismal record of our own country with its indigenous populations after its first 60 years. And how about other young, post-industrial democracies? How about Canada, which itself interned Japanese Canadians in WWII, and even after the defeat of Japan, the interned Japanese were given the choice of deportation or transfer to other parts of Canada! How about another young modern democracy, Australia? White settlement in Australia assured that the land was terra annulus – ownerless and could be settled without attention to the indigenous population. Sound familiar?
So I ask you to go home with this new vision of Zionism and Eretz Yisrael. And when people ask you what did your rabbi speak about, say he spoke about the New Covenant. Tell them this understanding of Israel and see if it inspires you and them. And from us it can go to others, other Jews old and young, those who are tiring of the role of Israel in Jewish religion, other Jews and non-Jews. We should not “cancel the State of Israel” because Zionism and Israel are more than a refuge for persecuted Jews. The State of Israel can be our New Covenant.
Gerald L. Zelizer is Rabbi of Congregation Neve Shalom, Metuchen, New Jersey. This article is adapted from a sermon from Rosh Hashana 5771 and was inspired by his participation in the Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Torah Study Seminar .