Rosh HaShanah Morning Sermon – 1 Tishrei 5775 – 25 September 2014

How wonderful it is to greet you again on this, our sixteenth Rosh Hashanah together.  Sally and our family join me in wishing you and yours a happy, healthy and sweet New Year. This is already a very good year for Oheb Shalom.  There are over sixty new families celebrating Rosh Hashanah with us for the first time.  Our religious school continues to flourish and grow.  If you have not been here for a while on a religious school Sunday morning, please come and see for yourself.  This has really become a fun and exciting place.  This is also my thirty sixth year as a rabbi, meaning that it is an especially fortuitous year being my double chai in the rabbinate.  In our Hebrew calendar, this is year 5775, spelled in Hebrew, tav- shin- ayin-hey.  The tav stands for 400, the shin for 300, the ayin for 70, and the hey for five.  When we look at 5775 as a word, it says “Tishah,” which is the number nine in Hebrew.   In the Hebrew alphabet, every letter has a numerical equivalent which for nine is the tet, the rarest number in the Torah.  The first time the tet is used in the Torah is in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, when God pronounces His creation as “tov,” as good.  I pray that this will be a tov, good, year for us, the Jewish people, our country and the entire world.

The beginning of the year, however, while positive for us, does not bode so well for the entire world.  Have you heard the old Jewish joke, “What is the definition of a Jewish telegram?  Start worrying.  Details to follow.”  It seems that we have received a collective telegram at the start of this year for we should be worried, especially at events in Europe and the Middle East.  I will speak about this topic today and why it is more important than ever to visibly show our support for Israel.

We are terribly troubled by Russian support for Ukrainian separatists.  A civil war is taking place in the Ukraine, one that is fed and fueled by the despot Putin, who wants to assert Russia’s imperial hegemony over all of Eastern Europe and past Soviet conquests in Central Asia.  Putin has re-ignited the Cold War, one we thought ended in 1989 but is heating up as we speak.  Putin has caused NATO to become more vigilant and the Europeans to up their defense budgets.  We have every reason to be concerned about Russian expansionism this year and in the years ahead.  While we may not go to war with Putin’s Russia over the Ukraine, we are pledged to defend the Baltic States and Poland.  If I was running the government of the United States, I would be increasing our defense spending, not cutting it.

Anti-Semitism is running rampant in Europe.  Four Jews were murdered at a Jewish Day School in Toulouse, France in 2012, and four Jews were killed at the Jewish Museum in Brussels this past May.  In July, police had to rescue a hundred Jews trapped in a synagogue by a pro-Palestinian mob. Israel has warned Jews not to wear kippot in public anywhere in Europe.  Demonstrators in Germany shouted “Jews to the gas.”  A British MP, Member of Parliament, declared his district in Bradford, an “Israeli free zone.”  In Central London, last month, anti-Israel protesters targeted a Sainsbury grocery store and the manager pulled all the kosher food off the shelves.  While the situation in Gaza may have precipitated the latest anti-Semitic outbursts, anti-Semitism, primarily linked to European Muslims, has been increasing in Europe since the 1990s.  This is a distinctly Muslim form of anti-Jewishness, a blend of traditional Christian anti-Semitism and leftist, secular anti-Semitism.  The Hamas Charter contains references to the virulently anti-Semitic pamphlet, “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” written by the Czarist secret police in 1905, claiming that a cabal of Jews were plotting to control the world.  A Hamas spokesman recently “stood by his statement that Jews used the blood of non-Jewish children in making matzah,” (Deborah Lipstadt, NY Times, August 20, 2014).  Let me re-assure you.  This is not 1939.  We can rely upon European governments to protect their Jewish citizens.  Given the exponential growth of the Muslim population in European countries, we wonder if this will be true twenty and thirty years from now.  No wonder French Jews are making aliyah at an unprecedented rate.

In this country, the Presbyterian Church has voted to align itself with the anti-Israel BSD (Boycott, Sanction, and Divestment) movement.  The United Methodist Church is considering joining them in their anti-Israel stance.  Why this growth in European and mainline Christian anti-Zionism?  Christians and Muslims, even the most liberal among them, have a very difficult time with Jews having power.  We no longer fit into the traditional Jewish stereotype of victim.  Israel has turned upside down the Christian notion of triumphalism, that the Church has replaced the Jewish people as God’s chosen ones.  It is abhorrent to many that Jews should be in control of our own fate.  It is even worse that we should have our own country in which Jews dominate Christians and Muslims.

This past year has seen dramatic developments throughout the Middle East.  Arab Spring caused the demise of the semi-secular and pseudo-modern dictatorships of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria, and, with the exception of Egypt and Jordan, leading to the disintegration of the Arab nation states founded by Britain and France in the aftermath of World War One.  “Arab nationalism has given way to Arab tribalism.  Arab modernity is deteriorating in the face of Islamic fundamentalism…Failed states, extremist movements and torn apart nations are replacing what were once secular and cohesive Arab countries (Ari Shavit, My Promised Land, page 409).”  The Israeli-Hamas conflict is part of a greater struggle, one so transformative that some commentators have compared it to the mid-seventeenth century Thirty Years War in Europe.  We cannot understand what it happening in Israel unless we view it within its larger context.

According to Tom Friedman, there are three civil wars raging in the Arab world today.  There is the civil war within Sunni Islam between radical jihadists and moderate Sunni Muslims.  There is the civil war between Sunnis funded by Saudi Arabia and Shiites funded by Iran and the civil war between Sunni jihadists, including ISIS, and all other minorities in the region, the Yazidis, Turkmen, Kurds, Christians, Jews and Alawites.  “We are dealing with multiple venomous civil wars that are breeding ground of the ISIS cancer.”  ISIS, the detestable and evil Sunni insurgency now plaguing Syria and Iraq, emerged as an “extreme expression of resentment by one side- Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis who felt cut out of power by the pro-Iranian Shiite regime in Baghdad and the pro-Iranian/Alawite Shiite regime in Damascus” (Tom Friedman, NY Times, September 2, 2014).

What does this have to do with Israel?  The answer is pretty simple, “When Middle Eastern powers clash, they take shots at Israel to gain advantage over each other” (David Brooks, NY Times, July 28, 2014).  Hamas recently attacked Israel, shooting over four thousand rockets at Israeli towns and cities, because the new Egyptian government, an enemy of Muslim fundamentalism, closed the vast majority of tunnels connecting Egypt to Gaza, an act which was economically devastating to Hamas.  “Hamas needed to end the blockade, but it couldn’t strike Egypt, so it struck Israel.  If Hamas could emerge as the heroic fighter in a death match against the Jewish State, if Arab TV screens were filled with dead Palestinian civilians, then public outrage would force Egypt to lift the blockade…The eminent Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff summarized the strategy when he wrote, ”Make no mistake, Hamas remains committed to the destruction of Israel.  But Hamas is firing rockets at Tel Aviv and sending terrorists through tunnels into southern Israel while aiming, in essence, at Egypt.”  Turkey and Qatar are backing Hamas while Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are rooting for Israel to destroy Hamas.  While the enemy of my enemy often becomes one’s friend, Israel has no permanent friends in the region, only permanent interests.

This would be a very different Rosh Hashanah Day if Hamas’ plans had come to fruition.   Hamas spent over $100 million in aid funds to build elaborate and sophisticated underground tunnels that led from the Gaza Strip into Israel.  Hamas had planned to send hundreds of terrorists into Israel this past night to attack lightly guarded Israeli communities, murdering and kidnapping thousands of Jews before retreating back through the tunnels into the Gaza Strip.  During the recent Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli Army uncovered thirty one tunnels, many with as many as seventy side shafts, replete with electricity, weapons and food caches, Israeli Army uniforms, and advanced drilling equipment.  An Israeli military spokesman referred to them as “Subways under Gaza.”

Since the end of Operation Protective Edge last month, the barbarism of ISIS is currently grabbing our attention.  Our country is currently engaged in putting together an anti-ISIS coalition, trying to destroy this latest incarnation of evil.  We cannot forget, however, despite the current ceasefire, that Hamas is an ally of ISIS, a Gazan incarnation of this diabolical pseudo-state.  Ari Shavit, the liberal Israeli columnist for Haaretz and author of the best seller my Promised lAND, is best known as a critic of Israel. Yet here he speaks for all civilized people when he asks, “Who are we fighting? A fascist organization that terrorizes the people of Gaza, oppresses women and gays and shuns all democratic values of freedom and progress.  Hamas are Palestinian neo-Nazis.  They’ve turned the first strip of land that was granted relative freedom into a bastion of totalitarianism.  They’ve incessantly attacked Israel for roughly a decade.  They staunchly rejected every Israeli attempt to prevent the current escalation.  They stubbornly fired thousands of rockets at civilians.  They’ve employed a sophisticated yet malicious strategy- to kill innocent Jews and force the IDF to kill innocent Palestinians.  Hamas…is an organization of war criminals…by no means can we show any empathy for the evil they represent” Haaretz, July 24, 2014).

Much of the world has condemned Israel for defending itself against Hamas.  They see photos of dead Palestinian civilians and lay the blame for their deaths exclusively on Israel, not understanding that the vast majority of civilian deaths are caused by Hamas itself, as it fires rockets from schools, hospitals, and residential areas.  Our college students will face a daunting task defending Israel in the face of the media onslaught and left wing academics.  Michael Oren, the historian and recent Israeli Ambassador to the United States, wrote, “In certain academic and media circles, Zionism is synonymous with colonialism and imperialism.  Critics on the radical right and left have likened it to racism or worse, Nazism.  In the Middle East, Zionism is the ultimate abomination- the product of a Holocaust that many in the region deny ever happened while maintaining nevertheless that the Zionists deserve it…In every war since 1948, Israelis have risked their lives for an idea.  The idea is Zionism, the belief that the Jewish people should have their own sovereign state in the land of Israel.  Though founded less than 150 years ago, the Zionist movement sprung from a 4,000 year long bond between the Jewish people and its historic homeland, an attachment sustained through twenty centuries of exile.  This is why Zionism achieved its goals and remains relevant and rigorous today.  It is why citizens of Israel take up arms.  They believe their idea is worth fighting for…We will be vilified, we will find ourselves increasingly alone, but we will defend the homes that Zionism inspired us to build.”

The least we can do, my dear friends, is support the Zionist endeavor with our utmost effort.  We must be Israel’s ambassadors and greatest supporters.  I urge you to join with Sally and me and buy Israel Bonds and invest in Israel.  Johns Hopkins Bank and the Associated will provide a 100% match to our purchases.  Last year, Oheb Shalom purchased $561,000 of Israel Bonds.  Let us together raise that total by 10% to over $600,000.  Israel needs our help today more than ever.  We must not let her down.  Immediately after this sermon, our ushers will pass the baskets down the aisles.  Please turn down a tab on your card and place it in the basket.  You may, like me, effortlessly buy an Israel Bond on line.  While our brothers and sisters are fighting and dying in our homeland, the least we can do is support them by purchasing Israel Bonds.

I just returned last Friday from an Associated mission to Israel.  There were fourteen of us, including fellow congregants and board members, Michael Greenebaum and Michael Hoffman.   We spent two days in our sister city of Ashkelon, only eight kilometers north of Gaza, and in the settlements in the Gaza envelope, right next to the border.  We saw the effects the over four hundred rockets fired at Ashkelon had on our friends and relatives who live there.  This was one of the most intense and eye opening experiences of my life.  We spent two days listening to and learning from the residents of the area.  During this Fifty Day War, our relatives were under constant threat, experiencing the dread of never knowing when a rocket would fall upon them and their loved ones.  The sirens went off fifteen to twenty times a day, signaling a rocket had been launched at them from Gaza.  The residents of Ashkelon had fifteen seconds, that’s right, just fifteen seconds to reach a shelter.  The residents of Kfar Aza and Ndiv Asara, the villages next to Gaza, had three to five seconds.  Iron Dome could not protect the closest villages but it did protect Ashkelon and the north, intercepting over 90% of the rockets predicted to land in settled areas.  Once one of these home- made Hamas rockets was intercepted, residents had to wait at least ten minutes for the debris to fall to the ground, that being as deadly as the rocket itself.    Perhaps even worse than the rockets were the mortars that fired on the villages.  There was no warning as these small artillery shells would destroy homes and kill people.  A four year old boy was killed by one of these in the last week of the war.

The economy of the South was devastated by the War.  Fields went untended, tourists could not spend money, and small businesses were empty of customers. Camps and summer programs were closed so parents had no idea what to do with their children.  How would they work with children at home?  In a remarkable effort, the teens of Ashkelon took responsibility for the thousands of children in Ashkelon, caring for them and running camp programming in the shelters for at least eight hours every day.  This allowed parents to leave the house and work without worrying about their children.   The people of Ashkelon needed help, so Sigal Arieli, our person on the ground in Ashkelon, called Michael Hoffman at the Associated.  Michael promised that Baltimore would deliver whatever was needed.   With our help, the children of Ashkelon were able to board buses and go on trips to safer parts of the country.  Families were able to leave the south for a few days and have a respite from war.  We should be proud of what we did.

Despite the constant trauma, the resilience of the Israeli people is amazing.   There is, though, lasting emotional damage.  Sigal, like most, still jumps every time she hears a loud noise.  Through our Associated dollars, we are enabling our partners, the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency, to put teams on the ground of psychologists, social workers, and trained volunteers to help residents deal with chronic PTSD and go back to normality.  We met the amazing health professionals at Barzilai Medical Center and saw how they coped with constant rocket fire while dealing with hundreds of casualties, military and civilian from the front lines.  This war united the Israeli people as nothing else has in recent years.  This is the third operation against Hamas in six years.  We heard from every person with whom we spoke that the next operation is not “if,” but “when.”  This is a situation that cannot be solved but must be managed, as Hamas ability to wage war will be continually degraded.

The most emotional of our meetings was with lone soldiers, those Jewish young people from the United States, Ecuador, Australia, Germany, and France who make aliyah and join the Israeli army.  Our very own Sam Auerbach, whose parents will speak to us during the Interlude Service on Yom Kippur, is one of those brave men and women who served in Gaza.  We then walked through Har Herzl, Israel’s Arlington Cemetery, to visit the graves of those soldiers, men and women, killed during Operation Protective Edge.  We paid our respects to Max Steinberg of Woodland Hills, California, a 24 year old American who went on Birthright and fell in love with Israel.  He returned, joined the Israeli army and fell in battle during the first week of the fifty day war.  We shed tears as we said Kaddish for Max and the other young defenders of Israel and the Jewish people who gave their lives so that the people of Israel may live.

One of the lone soldiers killed was 22 year old Sean Carmeli, from South Padre Island in Texas.  His funeral was held in Haifa on July 22.  His family was concerned that there would be sparse attendance at the service.  You can imagine their surprise when 20,000 Israelis, almost none of whom knew Sean, came to pay their respects to this young hero of Israel who chose to fight for his people.   A song was written for this service, one we will hear in just a few moments.  Let me translate it for you.  It is titled, “Esrim Alef Achim,” “Twenty Thousand Brothers.”  I know you will be greatly moved by what you will hear and see.

Twenty thousand  people, with you at their head

Twenty thousand people are walking behind you, Sean,

In silence, carrying flowers.

Two sisters, twenty thousand brothers.

The soccer fans who came wearing scarves in the team colors,

And a young woman holding a flag

Who doesn’t know why she is crying so much

When she’d never even known you.

Twenty thousand people…

They came to thank you and to say goodbye,

To say that there’s no such thing as a lone soldier

Or a nation that dwells alone

As long as in Texas, Haifa and Gush Etzion

There are people like you.

Twenty thousand people…

May the One who makes peace on high

Make peace for us in the autumn

That you will not live to see, Sean,

And that’s why they’ve come here, from elderly to infants,

From Haifa, from Gush Etzion

Twenty thousand people…

Twenty thousand people with you at their head

Twenty thousand people are walking behind you, Sean,

Silently, caring flowers;

Two sisters, twenty thousand brothers.

Twenty thousand brothers.

May God bring peace to Sean, his family, and all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice so the people of Israel might live.

Am Yisrael Chai!

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