Rosh Hashanah Sermon Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell 5775

Our Promised Land[i]

Rosh HaShana 5775/2014

Temple Beth El, Harrisonburg, VA

Temple House of Israel, Staunton, VA


Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell


 Shana tova. Friends and familyI am very glad to be here with you, once again. Welcome! Welcome back.

 We have not seen one another for a year. Some of us have never met. So beginning an important conversation is challenging. Here we are, on this Rosh HaShana Eve, and I want to speak my heart to you about a topic that is very important to me. And yet we are at the very beginning of our relationship, or beginning again after a long absence.

For me, this mirrors the challenge that faces every individual who enters into these Days of Awe, these Awesome Days. We walk through the doors of the synagogue, and are welcomed into a serious conversationwith our tradition and with God. Some of us may not feel at all ready to engagethe relationship may be too new, or strange, or perhaps even strained. Even those of us who are familiar, even fluent in the language of this extraordinary cycle, even we, as Rabbi Alan Lew teaches, are utterly unprepared.[ii] Many of us arrive here tonight unclear about why were here. We may be anxious about whats expected of us, we may be here in body but, without even realizing it, were not totally present. We have left some significant part of ourselves at home, or in the car, or at the door.

So I challenge each of you: be here now. Bring your whole self here. We are entering this New Year together. And I would like to share some words from my heart. The rabbis teach that words that are offered from the heart, words that are offered with a sense of Awe, enter the hearts of those who listen.[iii]

I want to talk with you about love. I want to talk with you about family, our family.

I want to speak with you about loving family even when it is difficult.

I want to speak with you tonight about Israel. For Jews and those who have chosen to travel with Jews, for part of a journey or for a lifetime, the people of Israel is family. Our family. In all our complexity, with our complicated history and our even more complicated present, we are members of this rich and varied, difficult and frustrating, resilient family. We are people who have an ancient and durable heart connection to a small piece of land we call Zion. For centuries we prayed that we might be privileged to return to that land. Sixty-six years ago, our people established a sovereign state in our ancestral land. And as you know, building a democratic state, a refuge for both Jews and others on this tiny strip of land has been an almost impossible challenge.

As some of you know, I have had the honor of serving as your High Holiday rabbi for the past eighteen years; this is my 19th year with you. I have watched a number of children grow up here, delighting as toddlers become kindergartners, seeing kids grow and change and prepare for bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, and then go off to college. I have had the honor to sit on this bima with several generations of temple leaders. And Ihave mourned with you when we have lost beloved members, and friends.  Over the years, we have become members of each others extended Jewish family.

So some of you know that Israel has been an important part of my life since I was a college Junior and spent six months studying in Jerusalem. I returned to Israel several years later and spent six months studying Hebrew on a kibbutz ulpan. For the past 23 years, I have been partnered with Nurit, who was born in Tel Aviv weeks after the state was declared. Over the years, I have shared stories of my Israeli families and friends, and learning from my continuing studies at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

This year, I speak with particular urgency. I speak with particular urgency because of what Israelis call HaMatzav, the ongoing situation, as it erupted and escalated this summer. HaMatzav included, tragically, the kidnapping and brutal murder of four young men. These murders were both preceded and followed by rocket attacks aimed at every city and almost every town in Israel, and the discovery of hundreds of subterranean tunnels that provided access for terrorists into kindergartens and schools and community centers. HaMatzvah included the response to these attacks, first airstrikes and then a ground invasion to locate and seal the tunnels.

Nurit and I had been looking forward to a 6 week mini-sabbatical in Israel. We rented an apartment in Tel Aviv, and I planned to return to my beloved Hartman Institute for a 2 week rabbinic study program. We arrived in Tel Aviv the week that the three yeshiva students were kidnapped. Ten days later, on the opening night of my Rabbinic Learning Institute, we learned that the students, Naftali Fraenkel, who was 16, Gilad Shaar, also 16, and Eyal Yifrah, 19, had been murdered. Two days later, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, age 16, was kidnapped and murdered.

The theme of our study program was A Time for War, A Time for Peace[iv]

On our second day, Dr. Tal Becker presented a lesson entitled Jewish Values, Jewish Character and the Pursuit of Peace. He invited us to study Talmudic and biblical texts that help him in his role as a member of Israels peace negotiating team. These are his words:

The negotiating table is not the place that peace happens. The challenge in that room is to create a space for an investmenta gamble where a different reality can emerge over time.

He continued, The true engineers of peace are those who take advantage of the space of negotiation to create an alternative reality.

He challenged us by saying that we need to address NOT the past but rather, the future. We need to challenge our own sense of certainty. When we think that our position is right because it is true, when we believe that we stand for the only possible truth, he reminded us that there is no room for the other. We must make peace with the other. So we must enter the process with both an open mind and an open heart.

He continued,

I have to be a champion of the view with which I disagree. What is the greatestexample of this posture? He asked. And then, like thousands of years of great teachers before him, Dr. Becker answered his own question.

What is the greatest example of championing the view with which I disagree?

Historically, we Jews perpetuate the point of view with which we disagree. We lift it up, we preserve it, we study it.[v]

Dr. Becker urged us to open ourselves to the narrative of the other, to the perspective of the other, to the truths of the other. He challenged us to reconsider what we hold as our own truths.

This is the beginning of dialogue, the beginning of conversation.

On July 8th, the eighth evening of our study together, Donniel Hartman, the President of the Hartman Institute, opened the evening saying that he and those who planned our time of study knew that the odds were in our favor that the topic was going to be relevant when they chose A Time for War, A Time for Peace. He continued, either a serious peace treaty would be on the table, or, if negotiations had fallen apartwe would look at our understanding of war in this impossible environment, and askhow do we think about peace?

Operation Protective Edge had been launched earlier that day, and rockets had been launched from Gaza towards Tel Aviv. Rabbi Hartman continued, I want to welcome you to Israel. I want to welcome you to one of the greatest secrets of Israeli society one of the sources of its greatest strength and of profound difficulty and potential failureto live in Israel is the ability to bifurcate your consciousness; to live and hold onto a myth of stability regardless of the circumstances Tonight were going to be Israelis.[vi]

Two hours later, shortly after the conclusion of the evenings program, a siren sounded. Those of us who were still on campus were herded down the stairs in the Beit Midrash, the Study Hall, descending into a series of rooms that comprise Hartmans extensive miklat, shelter. The festive mood of the evening was shattered by the siren, the first that some of us had ever heard. We were an erev rav, a mix of rabbinical students and seasoned rabbis, friends and family members, Americans, Canadians, Israelis, and others. For some of us, this was the first time we had entered a miklat seeking shelter from possible danger. Some prayed. Some were silent. I held a rabbinic student who had just arrived in Israel for her first year, as she trembled with fear and wept. After what seemed like many minutes, Donniel told us that it was safe to leave the campus. We found others who were headed in the same direction and walked through the empty, quiet streets. As my group approached the brightly lit main street in the neighborhood, Emek Refaim, we agreed that ice cream was an appropriate antidote to our brief, and for many of us, deeply unsettling experience.

Tonight were going to be Israelis.

My studies in Jerusalem came to an end, and I returned to Tel Aviv. Our days were punctuated by sirens indicating that a rocket was headed towards us, and that we had 15 seconds to seek cover. More than once sirens sounded when we were in a restaurant or coffee shop and we were ushered by the waitstaff into an internal kitchen or dishroom. Once we were drivingwe pulled over and lay down on the ground. Wed wait to hear the sonic boom letting us know that the Iron Dome, the Israeli developed and American funded anti-missile defense system, had intercepted the rocket. And then we would resume our day. 

There were several attempts to negotiate cease fires in July, but none succeeded 

Nurit and I returned to the United Statesshe had to return to her work on July 17.  That was the day that the Malaysian Airline flight 17 was shot down over Eastern Ukraine. It was also the day that Zahal, the Israel Defense Forces, entered Gaza on the ground. We landed in New York and learned the distressing news of loss and death in Europe, and continuing losses in Israel and in Gaza. 

As you know, the conflict continued all summer. Rockets continued to be aimed at Israel, and Israel continued to attempt to identify and destroy the stockpiles and staging areas, and the vast network of underground tunnels. The death tolls continued to mount. And as the conflict continued, print and social media was ablaze with heartbreaking stories, accusations and allegations of blame and guilt, and misinformation.  Some of us on this side of the ocean began conversations and then could not extract ourselves without hurting ourselves or others. Others of us simply shut down, afraid or unable to speak about the conflict. In many places, including several European capitals, hate speech escalated to violence against Jews. This summer saw a resurgence of virulent anti-Semitism unseen for a generation. Make no mistake: Anti-Zionism IS Anti-Semitism. This summers war exposed a hatred of Jews that, for some, has been simmering for many, many years.

Yet we are a people who pursue peace. Every time that Jews gather for prayer, we ask for Gods blessing of peace: Sim Shalom: Grant us Peace. Shalom Rav, we declare: Grant a great, lasting, expansive peace to us and to all peoples Every Shabbat and at every simcha, we bless one another with an ancient blessing that begins, Yivarechecha Adonai vyismarecha and concludes: May God bless us with peace. 

Twenty-one years ago, six days after Rosh HaShana, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin spoke to the Knesset and addressed both those who stood before him and his adversaries. Trained as a warrior, he had become a fierce fighter for peace. These are his words:

We are destined to live together, on the same soil in the same land. We, the soldiers who have returned from battle stained with blood, we who have seen our relatives and friends killed before our eyes, we who have attended their funerals and cannot look into the eyes of their parents, we who have come from a land where parents bury their childrenWe say to you today in a loud and clear voice: Enough of blood and tears. Enough.
We have no desire for revenge. We harbor no hatred towards you. We, like you, are people who want to build a home, to plant a tree, to love, live side by side with you in dignity, in empathy, as human beings, as free [people .We are today giving peace a chance and again saying to you in a clear voice: Enough.

I stand before you today, on this day of new beginnings and ask you to consider a new beginning in your relationship with Israel. Can we, like Rabin, say ENOUGH to blame, to bloodshed, to tears? I believe that we canand must find a way to speak with one another about Israel, claiming this complex inheritance, this mixed blessing.

Wherever you stand, I ask you, on this New Years Eve, to stand with Israel.

We call ourselves AM YISRAELthe people of Israel. We are family. We have always been a contentious people, arguing with one another about many issues, both issues of consequence and not. We are family. This is a time to claim that family connection.

It is time to meet the fiesty, difficult, beloved, diverse members of our family: the artists and industrialists, the kibbutzniks who now run factories and agribusinesses, the religious and the proudly secular, those who have made millions in high-tech, and those who are struggling to feed their families, the soldiers and the dreamers, those who were born in Israel and those whose parents came to Israel from the former Soviet Union, from Ethiopian, from Argentina, from France, from Australia and New Zealand, from the U.S. and Canada. Some members of our family embrace religious extremism. Some distance themselves from historical Judaism and from claiming any connection to the land.

Were a complicated family. And we are family to one another.

Tal Becker reminded us that we Jews have always honored dissenting voices. Join us: raise your dissenting voice! Let us reclaim our historic legacy and listen to one another with respect and the humility that is the rock shelf of admitting that we may not always know the answer.

This was a hellish summer for too many families in Israel and Gaza. The rocket fire and destruction has finally come to an end, and negotiators are sitting together, working on listening to one another, struggling, day after day to turn towards a future where all of our children will live with hope, not fear. As Rabin said, We are today giving peace a chance and again a clear voice: Enough.

Israel, in all of her complexity and vibrancy, calls us now. I believe that each of us can find a way in, a way to reconnect with this fractious, beloved, difficult amazing family in the only democracy in the Middle East.

I conclude with hope.

Hope is at the core of our Judaism. Jim Wallis, a powerful theologian of social justice teaches that hope is a decision we make. Hope means believing in spite of the evidence, then watching the evidence change.[viii]

Our presence here tonight proves his point. None of us would be here, in this place, on this night, if someone in our past had not worked to realize an unrealistic hope. We are survivors of hatred and persecution, discrimination and exile. We are here tonight, celebrating a New Year because the core of our tradition is resilience and hope. Af al pi chenlamrot ha kol; we are people who, throughout history and now, in spite of everything, champion the rights of others to be heard and considered. In spite of everything, we believe that there is a better way, a path to peace.

Hope, HaTikvah, is the title and the essence of Israels national anthem. Hope, HaTikvah is the Jewish peoples timeless source of strength. Let us, tonight, reclaim that hopeof an Israel that has the strength and the vision to be a beacon of peace and justice, an AM YISRAEL who stand together to realize that dream.

May we go forth into this New Year as one, reconstituting our family as a family that stands together EVEN WHEN WE HOLD DISPARATE IDEAS May we go forth into this New Year as a community who dares to dialogue with one another ESPECIALLY when we disagree. May we go forth into this New Year to a year of peace and justice, equality and fairness, in Israel, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and in every corner of our deeply troubled, deeply beloved world. That is our shared hope, HaTikvah.

Ken yhi ratzon: may it be so.


[i] I am deeply indebted to the powerful insights and inspired writing of three passionate Israelis, whose recent books continue to challenge me and help me find my way. Ari Shavit's masterful My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel is, I believe, a "must read" for all who want to engage in informed conversations about contemporary Israel. (NY: Spiegel & Grau, 2013.) Yossi Klein Halevi's Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers who Reuinted Jerusalem and Divided a Nation provides essential insights into Religious Zionism and the settler movement and offers invaluable insights and commentary on the last 47 years of Israel’s history.(NY: HarperCollins, 2013). Bonna Devora Haberman's Rereading Israel: The Spirit of the Matter (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2012) articulates a creative, interdisciplinary, hope-infused vision.

[ii] Alan Lew, This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (NY: Little Brown and Company, 2003), p.112

[iii] Berachot 6b: “R. Helbo further said in the name of R. Huna: If one is filled with the fear of God his words are listened to.” I offer these words in humility and with a sense of God’s awesomeness.

[iv] Ecclesiastes 3. Pete Seeger, the great American folk singer, set these words to music in the 1950s, and the song became an international sensation when it was recorded by the 1960s band The Byrds in 1965.!_Turn!_Turn!

[v] my notes from Tal Becker's presentation, "Jewish Values, Jewish Character and the Pursuit of Peace," 1 July 2014, Shalom Hartman Institute Rabbinic Torah Study Seminar.



[viii] I have paraphrased Wallis’ words from a talk delivered at the CCAR Conference in Chicago in March 2013. This quotation is found at Thanks to Hara Person for helping me locate it!