Rosh HaShanah Morning

Rosh Hashanah Morning Sermon

September 29, 2011-1 Tishri, 5772

          Shana Tova!  I am so happy to be with you on this first day of the New Year, 5772.  This is our thirteenth Rosh Hashanah together.  Every year seems to get better and better. The number 13, however, has connotations of bad luck in popular superstition.  There is actually a name for the fear of the number 13, “triskaidekaphobia.” Try to say that three times.   In his Textbook of Psychoanalysis, Charles Brenner explains that the term is Christian is origin.  “It comes from the Last Supper when Jesus and his 12 disciples sat together after which he was crucified.  This led to the belief that if 13 people get together something ominous will happen to one of them.” [1] This obviously does not apply to us for in the Jewish mystical tradition 13 is a very lucky number.  Three is the first prime number and thus an exceedingly lucky number.  Ten is the number of the Ten Commandments and the number of Jews required for a minyan, so it, too, is lucky.  Maimonides gave us the 13 attributes of God as enumerated in the Yigdal.  Rabbi Ishmael gave us 13 rules for interpreting the Oral Torah.  In Hebrew, the letters of the word for love, ahava, add up to 13.  For us, 13 is a very good number.  I know this will be a very good year for Oheb Shalom.  I am not so sure if it will be so good for the United States, Israel and the Jewish people at large. 

          I will speak about the challenges facing us in a moment.  Last night, I spoke about our need to listen for the still, small voice of God during this High Holyday season.  On Erev Yom Kippur I will speak about our fears.  On Yom Kippur morning, I will talk about the importance of maintaining a good name.  Before I go on to any of these topics, I first have a story to tell you.

          You have all heard the joke about the guy from Chicago who is walking down the Lake Michigan beach and kicks something metal in the sand, he bends down to inspect it and realizes that there is a Middle Eastern looking lamp on at his feet. As he brushes it off, there is puff of smoke and a genie appears. “Your wish is my command,” intones the genie. “Don’t I get three wishes?” says the guy. “Don’t get greedy,” says the genie. “And don’t be selfish either.” “All right,” says the guy. “Listen, I have been a Cubs fan all my life. My wish is that they win the World Series this year against New York.” “Are you kidding?” says the genie. “Have you seen the Cubs line-up?  Their hitting is inconsistent, their pitching is unreliable and even their fielding leaves a lot to be desired. I’m only a genie. Try a different wish.” “Okay,” says the guy. “The Israelis and the Palestinians are trying to get back to the negotiating table. How about if you make it so they actually succeed in reaching a permanent and satisfying agreement for both of them?”

           The genie thinks for a minute and says, “Do you want the Cubs to win in seven games or to sweep the Yankees in four?”

          I believe that miracles can happen. I dream, for example, that the Orioles will reach the World Series next year.  Is it possible?  Yes.  Is it likely?  Not unless Peter Angelos opens up his wallet and buys the best four pitchers in baseball.  I dream, for example, that our economy will recover, the unemployment rate will go sharply down, consumer confidence will go up, and the housing market will heat up.  Is it possible?  Yes, but it would take a miracle for it to happen.  The poverty rate in our country is sky rocketing.  One in four Baltimoreans lives in poverty.  That is just above the national average.  The Jewish community is not immune to the economic downturn.  Record numbers of Jews are receiving assistance from Jewish Community Services.  The Associated is doing its best to raise funds to help those in need.  Temple Oheb Shalom has a policy that all Jews can be members regardless of their ability to pay.  Close to 30% of our members are not able to contribute at the recommended level.  There are many unemployed members and even more underemployed members of our congregation.  It doesn’t seem that anyone, Republican or Democrat, White House, Congress, or Federal Reserve knows what to do with our economy.  When we add partisan gridlock to the mix, we have a big mess within the Washington Beltway.  I have never been more disappointed with the politics of our country than I am today.  The two parties cannot agree on anything substantial.  The government is being held hostage to Tea Party ideologues who want lower taxes, smaller government, and fewer regulations.  While many Americans, including some Jews, agree with the Tea Party, most Americans like what the government does for us. We want reform but also want Medicare and Social Security.  This next election presents the Republicans with a golden opportunity to win over the majority of Jewish voters.  Even though President Obama redeemed himself last week with his pro-Israel stand at the UN, such has been the discontent with his Israel policies that a reasonable Republican candidate could win the Jewish vote.  It seems, however, that the majority of Republican candidates are running for senior pastor of the National Cathedral rather than for the Presidency of the United States.  They trumpet their fervent, Evangelical Christianity over the airwaves, turning off Jews who might otherwise be attracted to them.  They spew forth their right wing cultural values to which we cannot relate.  Are Rick Perry and Michele Bachman strong on Israel?  They sure are, but can we vote for them?  We are torn because while they strongly support the Jewish State we cannot accept their social agendas or their born again Christianity.  A more moderate Republican has the opportunity to win the White House next November.  We will see if the Republicans blow another opportunity to reach out to the great American center. 

          President Obama’s Middle East policies have caused him to lose a great deal of support in the Jewish community.  His outreach to the Muslim world has not won the United States any friends.  His statement that the borders of a future Palestinian state should be based on Israel’s pre-1967 borders angered Jews and Israelis alike by undermining previous American policy that the borders should be mutually negotiated.  I have no doubt that President Obama is a friend of Israel.  He recently earned rare public praise from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.  He is, however, somewhat naïve about the real intent of the Arab world- which is to see the State of Israel erased from the map.  Richard Cohen of the Washington Post, not known for his pro-Israel views, has written, “The United States has the moral obligation to stick by the sometimes obstreperous democracy President Truman embraced 63 years ago.  The Obama administration has to show no daylight between it and Israel.  Leaders come and leaders go, but what remains are values and cultural forces that transform glacially.”[i][i][i]  President Obama has yet to convince the Jewish world that he understands this statement.

          This leads me to say that I am more concerned about Israel than I have been at any time since the Yom Kippur War in 1973.  Israelis threatened on every front.  While Israel has had nothing to do with the Arab Spring, popular discontent in Egypt and elsewhere over the slow pace of change is being focused on the Jewish State.  Israelis once again serving as scapegoat within the Arab world.  Just two weeks ago, thousands of Egyptians stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo, forcing the emergency evacuation of the Israeli ambassador and eighty employees as well as the rescue of six Israeli security guards by Egyptian commandos.  By the way, the Egyptian Army intervened to save the Israeli guards through the express intervention of the United States government.  While Egypt and Israel have been at peace over the last four decades, Israelis concerned that this could change.  Three weeks ago, eight Israelis were murdered by terrorists based in the Egyptian Sinai.  In response, Israel killed the terrorists and several Egyptian soldiers as it pursued the terrorists into the Sinai.  The peace between Egypt and Israel, while always cold, is now downright frigid.  Israelis currently re-thinking its security strategy on its Southern front.  It is very concerned that a weak Egyptian government will use Israel as a target for its people’s outrage for unfulfilled revolutionary promises.  The Egyptians have gone so far as to cut off the supply of palm fronds for Sukkot lulavs to Israel.  That’s right.  Most lulavim in Israel and throughout the world have come from Egypt.  The Egyptian government is not allowing the export of palm fronds to Israel this year.  While this may seem to be a petty issue, it shows us how much relations have deteriorated between Israel and its strongest neighbor.

           Turkey, once Israel’s most reliable ally in the Middle East, has expelled the Israeli ambassador and threatened to send its powerful navy into the Eastern Mediterranean to challenge Israel’s plans for gas exploration off its coast.  Turkey is trying to exert its leadership over the Islamic world by cutting its substantial ties to Israel.  The Erdogan government also suspended military agreements and defense trade with Israel, not an insignificant sum at $3.5 billion last year.  Turkey is especially angry that Israel refuses to apologize for the killing of eight Turkish citizens by Israel commandos on board the Mavi Marmara, a ship that last year ran the legal blockade of Gaza.  While other ships in the so called “peace convoy” turned back or entered Israeli ports, the Mavi Marmara refused to stop.  When Israeli commandos boarded the ship, they were attacked with lethal force and had to defend themselves.  Even the United Nations, certainly no friend to Israel, has endorsed the Israeli version of this event.  This adds to Israel’s isolation in the Middle East. This leads us to Iran, the largest existential threat toIsrael.  “While the world is looking elsewhere, the Iranians have boosted the production of enriched uranium, upgraded the level of enrichment closer to weapons-grade and reportedly moving essential production to a well protected underground facility.” [ii] Iran’s leaders are still determined to produce a nuclear bomb.  Their rhetoric indicates that Israel is its intended target as they continue to deny the facts of the Holocaust and spew anti-Semitism with their every breath.  The Iranian threat must be taken seriously by Israel, whose military has publicly stated it is not able to take out the Iranian nuclear facilities in a first strike.  Only the United States has the capability to do this.  Neither the Bush nor Obama administrations have indicated any willingness to do so, hoping to contain Iran through diplomatic means.  We just learned last week, however, that the Obama Administration sold Israel 55 bunker busting bombs, the kind that can penetrate Iranian nuclear facilities. So perhaps the Israelis may try a first strike after all.  The Iranian threat will not go away.  We can just hope that the threat of an Israeli counter-strike will keep the mullah’s fingers off the nuclear button.

          Let me tell you what I learned in my visit to Ramallah, the Palestinian capital in the West Bank, this past November.  I was with the Maryland Clergy Initiative, a group of twenty Jewish and Christian clergy from Baltimore who met with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad in his office.  We saw a booming city filled with construction.  Offices, shops, and McMansions were going up everywhere.  Fueled by foreign aid and the investments of a Palestinian Diaspora, we saw an economy growing by 8-9% a year.  We traveled with a Palestinian military escort from the border with Israel to and from the Prime Minister’s office.  Salam Fayyad is the consummate technocrat.  He wore a fine suit, had very efficient aides, and was the model of civility.  We had a very pleasant and informative hour meeting. With a doctorate from the University of Texas and a long stint working at the World Bank, he has had all the experience necessary to turn around the nascent Palestinian State.  He has rooted out corruption, increased and standardized tax collections, provided services, and created a professional civil service and police force, the latter with the help of the United States.  Relations between Israeli security forces and Palestinian security forces are quite cordial as they work together to find and arrest terrorist cells.  Under Fayyad’s tenure, a de facto Palestinian state has come to exist in the West Bank.  There has been peace between it and Israel for the last three years with no sign of it abating.   Can this de facto peace lead to de jure recognition of a Palestinian state and a peace treaty with Israel?  I pray that it will- but I have some serious doubts it can happen in our lifetime.  The Palestinians are not yet reconciled toIsrael’s existence. No Palestinian government can sign away the Palestinian’s right to return to pre-1967 Israel and survive.  No Israeli government can allow Palestinian repatriation- for that would be the end of the Jewish State.  Everything else, including borders, settlements, land swaps, and the status of Jerusalem can be, and for the most part, has already been agreed upon.  Once the Palestinians are able to publicly accept that Israelis a Jewish State and that they renounce the right of return, there can be an enduring peace.  Until that time, what we have now is much preferable to a renewed Intifada. 

           Last Friday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addressed the UN General Assembly.  He did not advance the cause of peace.    Listen to how David Harris of the American Jewish Committee put it: 

          “Abbas was enthusiastically received by many in the hall. His speech was filled with recklessly incendiary language — “colonial military occupation,” “brutality of aggression,” “racial discrimination,” “multi-pronged policy of ethnic cleansing,” “war of aggression,” “apartheid policies,” “racist annexation Wall,” and more. He spoke of Israeli “assassinations, air strikes and artillery shelling,” “war of aggression,” and “thousands of martyrs and wounded.” He sought to make it sound as if Israel had nothing better to do than prey on innocent Gazans.

           By ignoring Israel’s total withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the violent seizure of power by Hamas in 2007 from his PA, the genocidal Hamas Charter, the steady barrage of missiles from Gaza to Israel, and the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, he willfully rejected Israel’s legitimate security concerns. Would it have cost Abbas to acknowledge these grim realities? Maybe in his street, yes, but isn’t that what statesmanship is supposed to be all about?

           He described the Palestinians as a “defenseless people,” as if there hadn’t been decades of terrorism, thousands of dead and injured Israelis, and lethal weapons, courtesy of Iran, in the hands of self-professed killers.”

          He claimed that in the 18 years since the Oslo agreement, “we persevered and dealt positively and responsibly with all efforts aimed at the achievement of a lasting peace agreement.” Really?  Had Abbas wanted to move the needle of mutual understanding, he might have rethought his formulation on the “Holy Land” — in his words, the site of the “ascension of the Prophet Muhammad and the birthplace of Jesus Christ ” — to include even a passing reference to the biblical Jewish connection as well. But alas, he didn’t, consistent with the Palestinian narrative that there is no evidence of a Jewish link to the land or tie to Jerusalem.

           In all, Abbas chose the familiar path: Go to the General Assembly, where today he’s assured of an automatic majority that will cheer his every word, vote for whatever he seeks, and damn Israel for any alleged misdeed.

           By stark contrast, the Israeli prime minister used the same podium shortly afterward to call for the immediate resumption of direct talks, with the goal of a two-state accord. He declared: “After such a peace agreement is signed, Israel will not be the last country to welcome a Palestinian state as a new member of the United Nations. We will be the first.”

           Ah, if only the Palestinian leader had borne in mind those poignant words of King Hussein, expressed in 1997 after a lone Jordanian gunman murdered seven Israeli schoolgirls: “If there is any purpose in life, it will be to make sure that all the children no longer suffer the way our generation did.” Had he, Abbas would have sat down with a willing Netanyahu in New York, so together, despite all the obstacles and competing narratives, they could consider how to fulfill that noble vision.

           But Abbas chose not to. Instead, he opted to grandstand for the UN crowd and the folks back home. The result, alas, was another lost chance for peacemaking.”[1]

           We can enable Israel to stand strong and advocate peace from strength by purchasing Israel Bonds.  By investing in Israel Bonds, we make an important statement about our love for Israel.  We also make a prudent financial investment, for Israel has always paid off its bond holders.  This year, as in years past, Hopkins Federal Savings Bank and the Associated will match every bond purchased during this High Holydays Israel Bond Appeal.  I urge you to renew or buy an Israel Bond today by just pulling down the appropriate tab on your card and returning it to our ushers who will now enter the Sanctuary. 

In conclusion, I now invite you to pull out your Israel Bond tab cards and, in conclusion, let us recite together A Prayer for Israel and Peace which is found on the back of the card:

May we see the day when war and bloodshed cease. When a great peace will embrace the whole world. Then nation will not threaten nation, and humankind will not again know war. Compassionate One, bless the State of Israel and shield it with your love.  Spread over it the shelter of Your peace and strengthen the hand of those who defend her.

We pray for love and justice to flow like a mighty river and for peace to fill the earth as water fill the sea, and let us say:  Amen


[1] David Harris, The Huffington Post, September 25, 2011


[i][i][i] Richard Cohen, The Washington Post, September 15, 2011.

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