Dvar Torah For Parshat Ki Tavo/Shabbat of Selichot 5772.
There is something about dreaming that helps me to see the truth in ways I can’t see when I’m awake. Take the dream I had the other night. I woke up at about 4 AM after trying several hours before to write this sermon. I sat in somewhat of a stupor, not having slept sufficiently, and looked over some of the commentaries to this week’s Torah portion. At about 4:50 my body told me, “Dan, this is ridiculous, go back to sleep, even if only for an hour before you get up again to go to morning services.”
I did just that, and I had one of those dreams you have just before sunrise, that possess deep clarity and allow you to awaken feeling a bit wiser and more refreshed, even as they convey a world of conflated fantasy and real-life images. In the dream, I am riding down two main streets in Jerusalem on a rainy day just before the holiday of Purim, when everyone is out selling masks and costumes and the whole world feels like a masquerade ball. I feel like I have felt when encountering this scene in real life: a sense of bursting emotion and pride that the Jewish state is a place where we Jews can just live as naturally and openly as we wish. Suddenly the dream scene changes, and I am on a hill overlooking the old city with the Dome of The Rock prominently showing in the foreground, along with the Western Wall. The scene is clearly part of a dream sequence because next to the Temple Mount where these sites are, stands an elaborate palace that does not exists in the real Jerusalem. It shimmers with a deep maroon color, even on that cloudy, rainy day. Next to me stands an older man and a teenage boy. I am overcome with emotion…then the dream ends.
Psychology teaches that dreams allow us to confront fantasies and unresolved issues pushed down into our subconscious minds. They generally weave together emotional responses to real life experiences using images that are not real in the objective sense, but whose symbolism touches upon very real things with which we struggle. Thinking back over the last two weeks, I realize that my dream may well have been my mind’s way of dealing with a few things, obviously having to do with Jerusalem and Israel, that I have been too busy, or too afraid, to deal with. First, about two weeks ago, a woman by the name of Penina Ha-Levy died at the age of 92. She and her husband, Avraham (whom everyone referred to simply as Halevy) were my kibbutz parents when I spent the summer on their kibbutz, Hatzor-Ashdod, in the summer of 1979. They both have had a tremendous impact on me well into these, my middle years. I realize that I have been grieving their deaths, and I’ve also been feeling some guilt at not having kept in touch with them over the years. Around the same time as Penina passed away, I read the news reports about the group of young Israeli teens who attacked and severely beat four Palestinians in downtown Jerusalem while a crowd of people looked on and did nothing. Some Jewish leaders explained that this vicious, racist act was an anomaly in a generally democratic, peaceful Israeli society; others warned that it was a sign of the growing tolerance for racism and extremism in Israel. Finally, the night of my dream, earlier in the evening, I was privileged to attend a Sheva Brakhot for a young couple in the community who had just been married. Sheva Brakhot, which means in Hebrew, “seven blessings” is a week-long party after a Jewish wedding, in which the couple is hosted for a daily or nightly meal, at which the traditional seven blessings of the wedding ceremony are chanted after Birkat Ha Mazon, grace after meals. At the meal for the young couple, I was honored to publicly chant the fourth blessing, whose words are the following:
Bring great happiness and joy to mother Zion who was barren, as her children return to her in joy. Blessed are You Lord, Who gladdens Zion through her children.
The blessing places the joy we feel at the creation of a new Jewish family in the context of the rebuilding of Zion, one of the symbolic names for Jerusalem, Israel and the Jewish people. Youngest to oldest, we are Zion’s children.
Reflecting upon these experiences I had and the images in my vivid dream, I have concluded that deep down I am struggling with what traditional sources call the conflict between the heavenly Jerusalem and the earthly Jerusalem. The heavenly Jerusalem is the one of our fantasies, in which everything is beautiful and emotionally sustaining, and the city is a place that shines with the light of the messianic age, full of peace and joy. The earthly Jerusalem is beautiful too, but like all cities in all real societies in the world, even democratic ones, it is less-than-perfect, it is at times the site of human ugliness and violence, and its light is often mixed with darkness. Penina and Avraham Halevy understood this better than anyone. Their families immigrated to America, where they both became passionate left wing, secular Zionists, then made aliyah before the founding of the State of Israel, even as their extended family was being murdered by the Nazis. The Halevys raised at least three generations of their family on their kibbutz. As they and their descendants fought physically and politically for the survival of the State of Israel, they also taught their family and others about the supreme importance of keeping Israel democratic, and actively pursuing peace with the Palestinians well before it was fashionable for anyone to even mention such things. They taught me to love Israel, yet more important to love the Jewish people in all of its complexity. Most of all, they taught me that a State of Israel that mistreats its weakest members may feel strong in the short run, but will become weak in the future, because it is not being true to its best Jewish and democratic values. Remember that these were people who lived and died as Israeli citizens and soldiers, who built the Jewish state with their own hands. They were part of an almost deceased generations of halutzim, pioneers, who pursued the dream of heavenly Jerusalem, who slogged through the dark waters of earthly Jerusalem, who spilled their own blood so that you and I could have a Jerusalem to visit, and who would have been appalled by the bloodshed perpetrated upon innocent people by their fellow Jews in the city of Jerusalem. In their own very secular way, the Halevys understood better than any of us what that blessing of Sheva Brakhot means when it talks about Zion’s children returning to her in joy. They just weren’t willing to accept the either/or notion that our Jewish people’s joy at returning to Zion has to preclude the joy of others who are living there alongside us, and vice versa, something that plenty of Palestinians still don’t get as well.
This summer, responding to people in our community on the left and the right who have asked me to speak out more on Israeli politics, I started writing a long essay about my views. After two weeks, I realized I was writing a boring, cagey, defensive manifesto that no one would read, even though it would still make everyone angry. I stopped writing it, thankfully, and I now see that this sermon is what I was intended to write instead. I am not the Jerusalem Post or Haaretz, and I do not have a PhD. in Israeli and Middle East Affairs. I would never, never presume that even my best insights about how Israel ought to deal with Iran, the Palestinians, or its own democracy and religious life are definitive truth. I do not pay Israeli taxes, I do not serve in the Israeli army, and my family is safely ensconced in Albany, NY. What some might assume is my cowardice or political cageyness in not expressing my political views is actually more a matter of humility on my part, at least I would like to believe that. I am not an AIPAC rabbi or a JSTREET rabbi, I am just one rabbi, one Jew living in America, but deeply connected emotionally and morally to the state of Israel and the Jewish people. I am tired of the political correctness police telling me that Israel is an apartheid state. That is like telling me that because America still struggles with its racist past, ipso facto, America must be an apartheid state as well. I do not see any of those same people who are so smug about demonizing Israel leaving America because it still deals inadequately with racism. I do not see them divesting themselves of their iphones or laptops, even though China, the world’s biggest producer of these items, is also the world’s biggest human rights violator. At the same time, precisely because I am a student of the Torah and of people like the Halevys, I get worried when I witness the earthly Jerusalem and the heavenly Jerusalem diverging. But forget about my worries, for in the end they lack a certain credibility since I am not an Israeli. Think about what Penina and Avraham – two people who not only dreamed but lived and loved the real Jewish state – would have worried about. Think about what they would have told us we need to do to support Israel physically, while also helping Israel democratically, Jewishly and spiritually. Would their emphasis on security and using military might to protect the Jewish people have made them right wingers? No. Would their emphasis on peace and justice for all of Israel’s citizens have made them left wingers? No. It would have made them, it did make them, Jews and Zionists in the best senses of those words.
I grieve the loss of my friends and mentors, the Halevys. I continue to dream and try to make reality the things they taught me. I rejoice at the rebuilding of Zion each time a Jewish couple marries, each time anyone goes to Israel and comes back transformed. I pray that Israel continue on its path of being a strong, Jewish and democratic state. I am hopeful that these dreams of mine will continue to become reality. I make a commitment in this coming new year to doing my part to make those dreams come true.