Yom Kippur: Soul Journey Sermon by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell


 Beth El Congregation, Harrisonburg, VA

Kol Nidre

22 September 2015/10 Tishrei 5776

Sue Levi Elwell



שנה טובה / Shana Tova.


Id like to speak with you tonight about your journey.

Your souls journey. Each soul, and each journey is unique.


Were all on it. Yom Kippur is one of the times that were jostled into awareness and we may actually name this journey.


Were all on our way through life. Over the course of our days, each of us collects, or discovers, or trips over rocks, or creeks, or souvenirs that help remind us that were on our way. Sometimes those reminders come in the form of a birdsong, or a musical phrase, or a full blown lyric. Sometimes its a book title, or a line from a poem.[1]


The poet Mary Oliver has accompanied me on part of my journey. Although weve never met, her words walk with me. Here is the conclusion of her poem, The Summer Day.


I dont know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesnt everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?


For me, thats the challenge of Yom Kippur.

So Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one, wild, precious life?


What will distinguish this one, wild and precious day in the calendar of YOUR life? What is the impact of this day on our souls journey?


Tomorrow we join Reform Jews around the world in reading from Parashat Nitzavim, words from the fifth and final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy 29-30.


Our portion begins by addressing each of us, directly.

You are standing here this day: all of you.

We are being addressed directly, by name. EACH OF US.


ראשיכם your leaders

שבטיכם your officials,

זקניכם your elders

כל איש ישראל each man, woman and child


and the text continues:

The stranger in your midst,

from the one who cuts your wood to the one who draws your water

each one, singled out, described more than once so that it is clear that all are included. No one is neglected, overlooked, left out.


The text continues:

for the opportunity I offer you today

is notbeyond you, nor far away.

It is not in heaven and it is not across the sea

No, this is so very near to youin your mouth and in your heart you can surely do it.


We read these words every year

because as much as we are people of remembering, we are also a people who forget. And so we read these words again, to know that

each of us matters, no matter how exalted, or how lowly.

Young and old, of many genders, varied professions,

each of us is addressed, challenged by these words.


This day is about EACH of us, and about the journeys of each of our souls.


So what are each of us going to do with our one precious day, our one wild and precious life?


In past years I have spoken with you about Yom Kippur as a day in which we practice dying: we do not eat, we turn away from our daily routines. Some of us wear special clothing, or choose not to wear leather shoes that create a distance between our feet and the earth.


On both Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, we read the deeply challenging and powerfully haunting UNetaneh Tokef prayer, which challenges us to think about who shall live and who shall die. The composer Leonard Cohen writes:


And who by fire, who by water,

Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,

Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,

Who in your merry merry month of May,

Who by very slow decay,

And who shall I say is calling?[2]



Death will come to each of us. Yet most of us are unprepared, and profoundly unready.


Today, each of us is called to account.


As some of you know, Nurit and I took part in a historic walk a couple of weeks ago. The NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, organized Journey for Justice, a 40 day, 1000 mile walk from Selma, Alabama to Washington, DC, commemorating the 1965 Voting Rights March.[3] With the support of the RAC, the Reform Movements Religious Action Center, and the CCAR, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, over 150 rabbis from across the country took turns carrying a Torah. We were proud to follow in the footsteps of Reverend Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched together in 1965 in Selma. Heschel said I felt my legs were praying.[4]


Nurit and I spent Shabbat, September 12, walking with an erev rav, a mixed multitude of folks. A man from Colorado walked at the head of our group, setting the pace for the rest of us. He called himself Middle Passage, recalling the forced voyage of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. Middle Passage, who began the march in Selma on August 1, carried the American flag every day.  After trudging through the rain that morning, after leading the march for 920 miles, Middle Passage collapsed and died.[5]


Again, the words of Leonard Cohen:

And who by brave assent, who by accident,

Who in solitude, who in this mirror


Middle Passage died with his boots on, marching for justice. In his life, he embodied memory and resilience, as he marched with others for Our lives, Our votes, Our Jobs and Our Schools.


Middle Passages death catapulted me into asking these questions:


How do I want to live my life?

Do I want to take risks, walking forward with assurance, confidence, and pride? What banner do I carry? For whom do I set the pace?


Every day we open our eyes, and the day stretches out before us.

Every day each of us,

ראשיכם your leaders

שבטיכם your officials,

זקניכם your elders

כל איש ישראל each man, woman and child

chooses whether to say YES to the possibility of light and life.

Every day we are presented with this option, this choice, this discernment.


Yom Kippur reminds us of the power of this gift

this simple gift, this gift of time, this gift of choice.


Tell me, what do you plan to do

with your one wild and precious day,

with your one wild and precious life?


Will I, today, open my eyes to the world around me.

and see that the natural world is in danger? The icecaps are melting. The rainforests are disappearing. We are poisoning and polluting Mother Earth.[6] Is today the day that I will open my eyes to the destruction of the earth?


Will I, today, open my ears to the cries of the sixty million souls who are seeking a safe haven, this global exodus?

Is today the day I will hear the echoes of my own peoples stories in the voices of the Syrians and Afghans, the Somalians, the Sudanese, and too many more? Is today the day I will listen to the pleas of the children, parents, and grandparents who have been uprooted from their homes and now clamor to be admitted to countries that will offer a temporary resting place, and ultimately a permanent home? [7] Is today the day I will open my ears to the heartbreak of the greatest number of displaced persons in human history?


Will I, today, open my heart to my family: those who live in my home and in my city? Can I accept that each of us is created in the Divine image? And that my family is your family, our family? This is what the human family looks like. We are all humans beings sharing a fragile earth. Yes, there are differences between us. We have so much to learn from what distinguishes us, one from the other. Is today the day I will truly open my heart to my brothers and sisters, celebrating our differences and claiming our oneness?


Will I, today, open my soul to the journey that is uniquely mine? Will I claim, for the first time, or once again, with renewed conviction and determination, a path of commitment? Of engagement? Of intention? Of justice? Will I, on this Yom Kippur day, renew my vow to love myself AND the world?


The portion that we will read tomorrow from Deuteronomy concludes:


This day I call heaven and earth to witness regarding you.

REGARDING YOU, each one of US.

life and death I have set before youChoose life.


How will we choose life today?


If we live today to the fullest, if we intentionally choose life, choose to open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to the world, if we stake out our souls journey, we will arrive at the end of the day with a different sensibility, with a sense of lightness, with greater clarity, and perhaps with joy. One of the powerful metaphors of Yom Kippur is that over the course of this awesome day, our names are written, and then sealed in the Book of Life by the מלך  המלכים Melech haMelachim, by the קדוש ברוך הוא Kadosh Baruch Hu, by the אדון הסליחות Adon haSlichot.


On this Yom Kippur day, I challenge each of us to grasp this metaphor of inscription in the Book of Life as our banner.


The question we must ask, with Leonard Cohen, is And who shall I say is calling?


Who is calling you, who is challenging YOUR soul? Who is calling you to take up the banner of YOUR journey? Is it a power outside of you, or is it a still small voice in your own head, your own heart?


The important thing is not who is calling but that we are called, each of us.


Each of us is called to open our eyes, our ears, our hearts, our souls.


We, who live with so many material comforts, take this day to be discomfited.


May that discomfort lead us to a day of decision: to no longer stand idly by, to choose life, with all its heartbreak, with all its beauty. Will you join me in raising a banner for the essential and stunning humanity of each person, and the universal right of individuals to live in peace and unafraid. Will you join me in raising the banner of justice and compassion, not for ourselves, but for all people, everywhere. For we are the people who, again and again, choose life and hope and love.


May each of us claim our power to choose a life of meaning, a life of engagement, a life that makes this world a better place than we found it. May this be our journey. May each of us use our one wild and precious life for joy, for justice, for love.


כן יהי רצון Ken yhi ratzon.


[1] For at least the past 400 years, people have been keeping “Commonplace Books,” notebooks in which individuals record insights, quotations, proverbs, prayers, and much more. Distinguished from diaries or journals, such collections support the compiler’s process of bringing together information that may assist in organizing or cataloguing a life’s experiences. Commonplace books have been adopted by some contemporary students of Mussar, the Jewish ethical tradition. For more information, also see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commonplace_book.

[2] http://www.lyricsfreak.com/l/leonard+cohen/who+by+fire_20082835.html

[3] http://www.naacp.org/news/entry/take-the-justicesummer-challenge-walk-justicemiles


https://www.facebook.com/groups/190598967730541/; https://vimeo.com/139409835

[5] http://www.naacp.org/press/entry/naacp-official-statement-on-the-passing-of-justicesummer-marcher-middle-pas

[6] 360.org; pachamama.org

[7] hias.org

Practicing for Death, Practicing for Life Sermon for Yom Kippur 5775 by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell

Practicing for Death, Practicing for Life in this Place 

Temple House of Israel, Staunton, VA

Temple Beth El, Harrisonburg, VA

10 Tishrei 5775

3-4 October 2014

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhD.


Welcome back. Were here again, in this place.

Bmakom hazeh.

For some of us, this place is familiar. For some of us, this is a new place.

Lets all take a moment to look around this space, this place, hamakom hazeh.

When I was young, I attended a school where we taught not only how to think but also how to behave. We were taught that we should walk into a space, particularly any gathering space, with eyes straight ahead. Once we had found our seats, we should not turn around; rather our composed stature would ground us and prepare us for whatever would come next.

Tonight, I ask you to follow a different direction. Look around, look up, behind you, then in front of you. Notice something you may not have noticed before about this place, haMakom ha Zeh.


HaMakom means this place. It is also one of any names for the Holy One, for Gods Self.

In Genesis, Parashat VaYetzei, Jacob begins what becomes his formative spiritual journey, and the very first night after leaving home, he dreams of a ladder with angels going up and coming down on it. The Holy One appears and speaks to Jacob, and when Jacob awakes, he says, Mah norah haMakom haZeh!How awesome is this place! (Genesis 28:17)

How Awesome is the ONE who is in every place.

We have returned to this place tonight to be grounded, to remember who we are, to reclaim our identity as Jews. To remember and recover, in community, the why of our lives, the reason for our strivings, the ways we are held and challenged by our Judaism.

Mah norah haMakom haZeh!

A couple of weeks ago, I spent part of a day helping my best friend go through her closets because, after 41 years in this house, she is going to move. In three separate closets we found her fathers neckties, her former husband's tuxedos, and many items belonging to her mother: pants, jackets, blouses, and more. As gently as I could, I asked her if she was ready to part with the clothing of these three family members, all of whom are dead.

How do clothes, and other belongings, represent life, or, conversely, feed our fears of death? What are we carrying forward into this New Year that may be pulling us back into the past, or into our fears? How can we go forward, to new projects, new hopes, new homes, in this New Year?

Rosh HaShana is a call to life, with over 100 shofar blasts, with our declaration that Today is the Birth Day of the World. Ten days ago, with pageantry and ritual and symbolic foods for long life and wisdom, we sang the New Year into being. Together we proclaimed, may this year, 5775 bring to us and the whole House of Israel life and peace, joy and exultation, redemption and comfort. We ate sweet foods and engaged in conversation, strengthening community, affirming our connection. Some of us stood on the banks and cast away our transgressions, reaffirming life and hope. In synagogues and homes, in the practices of the devout and those who call themselves secular, the message of Rosh Hashana is simple and strong: CHOOSE LIFE.

Yom Kippur is a call to death. Throughout the 25 hours of this day, we descend into death, as we fast, eschew bathing, wear simple white clothes, go barefoot or wear no leather, and spend the day in the synagogue, turning our backs on the world. We leave both the natural and the material worlds, distancing ourselves from commerce and community, from the cacophony of the marketplace and the comforts of home. We enter into the subdued light of the synagogue, read prepared liturgies, and chant the Torah with the particular trope of these Awesome days. The day stretches on, and we go more deeply inward, discovering, perhaps, a well of quiet of which we were unaware. We may fear the darkness. But descending, find light.

In A Bride for One Night, Professor Ruth Calderon, the Israeli Knesset member, retells Talmudic tales. In one, she writes that when the Angel of Death was sent by the Holy One to Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi, The Angel of Death knew from experience that escorting sages to their deaths, whether they were still in their prime or had reached ripe old age, was not a difficult task.  Sages were prepared to die; they were not shocked and startled by his arrival like other men. With sages the Angel of Death was spared the routine crying and pleading and the paralyzed looks of those not ready to depart from the world. Perhaps the little pride they had countered the fear of death, overcoming that momentary pain when the soul escapes the body. Perhaps they were consoled by the fact that the Torah they had learned in their lifetimes would secure them a place in heaven. In any case the Angel of Death tended to interact politely with sages, as if conversing with equals. (p. 101).

On Yom Kippur, we all become sages. On Yom Kippur, we are welcomed into the world of death. We wrestle with our pride, in both communal and individual confessions. And together, we study Torah.

Here are two pieces of Torah that we study on Yom Kippur:

We began the seamless flow of this day with Kol Nidre. listening to the words that remind us that we are absolutely accountable for everything that comes out of our mouths.{C}[1]{C} The version of Kol Nidre that we use names the words that we may speak between this Yom Kippur and the nextMi Yom Kippurim zeh  ad yom Kippurim ha ba, and expresses the hope that we use words judiciously, intentionally, and with care. Kol Nidre is understood to serve us as a prophylactic, a protective shield, if we are forced to utter words we do not believe, to articulate views with which we disagree, to acquiesce to opinions or positions we do not hold.

The Kol Nidre prayer, then, reminds us to be mindful of our speech even as it says, youre covered. The community, those who witness Kol Nidre, has our back. Were not alone if we stumble in our speech. The words we will say, from this Yom Kippur to the next, are protected.

What of the vows we make willingly, without coercion, with joy and intention, with clarity and commitment?

Tonight, I would like to challenge each of us, as we enter into this day of discernment, to consider a vow, a commitment, that we WANT to and CAN keep in the coming year: ““Mi Yom Kippurim zeh  ad yom Kippurim ha ba.

I would like each of us to spend some time on this day that begins tonight, this Sabbath of Sabbaths, this day like no other in the Jewish calendar, thinking about one vow that we can make to ourselves that we can PRACTICE for the next year.

I looked up that word, and heres how the dictionary helps us:

rehearse, run through, go over/through, work on/at; polish, perfect.

train, prepare, go through one's paces.

carry out, perform, observe.

What would you like to work on, polish, and observe this year?

What is one achievable ongoing practice, commitment, engagement FOR YOU in the new year that begins now?

Weve all done thismany, many times. Weve all started projects that weve then put aside. Weve all made commitments that, for a range of reasons, weve not completed or followed through on. We may be jaded, or resistant. Not again!

Can we make this year differentby choosing ONE ONGOING COMMITMENT TO OURSELVES THAT, a year from now, we will be able to say, I worked on this.

The Torah portion that we read tomorrow includes these words:

Ki haMitzvah hazot asher anochi mitzavcha hayom lo niflate he vlo rchocha heelo va shamayim hee

The opportunity which You have given us today is not too hard for you, nor too remote; it is not in the heavensno, it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, and you can do it.

On this Yom Kippur day, each of us, I believe, can become sages, committing ourselves to living fully, even with the knowledge that each of us will die. The sages knew that looking death in the eye can help us to embrace life. I want to encourage each of us to do that: to immerse ourselves in the work of this Yom Kippur Day and to go forth into this year with a renewed sense of the powerand the beautyof life, and our own ability to increase that power and beauty.

Do you, like my friend, like me, have closets that need attention, belongings and memories that need to be sorted through?

Another friend, Susan, told me that as she prepared to move, she delightedly engaged in what she called revisionist history. I kept the mementos and the papers and books from the happy times in my life. I discarded all the rest.

This is a perfect time of year for us to clean our hearts closets. This is challenging work, but not impossible. We all have, intentionally or unintentionally, kept memories, and grudges, costumes and protective clothing that we no longer need or want. Weve begun a new year, and to better live in the present, we need to acknowledge, honor, and move beyond the past. For some of us, this means packing up our sorrows. Someone else will, perhaps, know how to use them. {C}[2]{C} And we, less burdened, can move on.

What is your vow, your commitment for this new year, Mi Yom Kippurim zeh  ad yom Kippurim ha ba that will help you move into this New Year with a greater sense of purpose, of clarity, of being fully yourself? This is your one precious life. Whatever your age, whatever your capacity, as this new year begins, you can claim your freedom and chart your next moves, moves towards life, towards health, towards engagement, towards service.

I want to encourage each of us here to identify ONE practice you would like to beginor set your mind to beginningfor yourself. This is between you and yourself, although, if appropriate, your commitment can involve service to another.

Your commitment to life might be as simple as spending 30 minutes a week walking outside. Or learning the Hebrew alphabet. Or taking up piano again. Or writing to an aging or lonely friend or relative once a month. Or volunteering, gardening, or learning carpentry. Or researching and then giving time or money to a cause or campaign you believe in.

What will enable you to mobilize your heart and claim an opportunity that is waiting for YOU in 5775?

By attending to our lives with intention and clarity, we are, consciously or not, preparing to meet the Angel of Death. Like the sages, each of us can cultivate equanimity, developing the muscle of calm so that when our time comes, we are not shocked or startled. We may not welcome the Angels knock, but we may acknowledge the inevitability of its arrival.

I invite you to write down your vow, your commitment, and to seal it in a self-addressed envelope. As you leave this service, you will find note cards and envelopes and pens at the front and at the rear of the sanctuary. I will collect the sealed envelopes. Three months from now, as the month of December draws to a close and the Hebrew month of Tevet begins, I will mail your letter to you. You will then have an opportunity to see how youve done for the first quarter of this new year, and to renew or revise your vow. Youll keep growing as the seasons and the months change. You will be making your way through the Jewish year, and through your own life. How alive will you be to each days opportunities and challenges?

In a few weeks, we will read Parashat VaYetze. Wherever we are on our own journeys,  I hope that we will hear Jacobs words echo in your own experience of the New Year that is unfolding: Mah norah haMakom haZeh: How amazing is this place; how fortunate am I to be here, now, in this place.


{C}[1] Alan Lew, This is Real and You are Absolutely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (Boston: Little Brown, 2003).

{C}[2] Johnny Cash, “Pack Up Your Sorrows” http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/johnnycash/packupyoursorrows.html

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 saying..in 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. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turn!_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.

[vi] http://hartman.org.il/Blogs_View.asp?Article_Id=1418&Cat_Id=518&Cat_Type=Blogs

[vii] http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/pressroom/speechesarchive/pages/excerpts%20of%20pm%20rabin%20knesset%20speech%20-dop-%20-%2021-sep.aspx

[viii] I have paraphrased Wallis’ words from a talk delivered at the CCAR Conference in Chicago in March 2013. This quotation is found at http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/11501.Jim_Wallis. Thanks to Hara Person for helping me locate it!