Friday, October 3, 2014

A Panoramic View of Israel Through the Lens of Yom Kippur

The approach to Yom Kippur in the age of Facebook reveals a fascinating reality: from across the broad spectrum of Jewish life, the Day of Atonement is taken very seriously. Meditations, insights, essays, photos, quotes, videos, articles and personal reflections are posted, forming a virtual Wailing Wall, with posts posing as modern-day kvittels, the handwritten requests that supplicants have secreted between the great stones of the Kotel for centuries.

Facebook functions as a pre-Yom Kippur cheat sheet where we might find one-stop shopping-style inspiration. Over the past week, the plethora of great sermons that have been posted alone have turned this social medium into an anthology or concordance of sorts.

Delivering a Sefer Torah to Masorti shul in Ashkelon.
In my world, the only other topic to ignite as much impassioned online conversation is Israel.  Regarding Israel – in times of relative peace as well as the difficult days of war this past summer witnessed – there is an outpouring of commentary on Facebook from every possible point of view, displaying emotions ranging from love to pain to vitriolic hatred.

Contemplating these two seemingly separate topics, I realized that Israel consciousness is integral to the observance of Yom Kippur and that among the topics we ought to be thinking – and talking about – Israel occupies a high rung.

But I am not talking about a narrow conversation focused on political matters.

What I am calling for this Yom Kippur and for those in the future is an honest, ongoing holistic conversation about the perfectly imperfect state of Israel, her texture, her poetic significance, her social woes, her achievements and the place she occupies in the heart, mind and soul of the Jewish People in the here and now.

All too often, we reduce conversations about Israel to the narrowly political and by so doing we shortchange ourselves, as well as Israel for there are valuable lessons to be learned from a wide-lens perspective.

So, I’ll offer my own insights to get the conversation rolling: When I think about what Israel means to me it is resiliency. This awareness struck me again and again over the course of my four trips this past summer. I saw it in synagogues and shelters. I saw resiliency in schools and home and on the streets.

The spirit of Israel, even after a horrendous death toll this summer, even after the threat of rockets and the horror of terrorist tunnels and worldwide condemnation, is resiliency.

That, and the belief that tomorrow will be a better day.

I’ve written previously about some of my experiences visiting Israel in the midst of war. The existence of the State of Israel within the narrative of Jewish experience is a testimony to that resiliency. It is about survival against the backdrop of uncertainty. It is about acknowledging the fragility of one’s existence. And when one enters into the liturgy of Yom Kippur, the piyyutim reflect that consciousness. By reading and reciting these prayers as a community, we perform a remarkable existential act; we engage in a collective rehearsal for the inevitable, the day of our death.

Undergirding the inevitable is the belief that we are not passive but active partners in our destiny. The entire notion is that whatever the calamity may be – whether personal or communal – teshuva (repentance) tefilla (prayer) and tzedaka (charitable acts) aver the evil decree.

To understand the true meaning of this concept, visit or live in Israel during wartime. The repentance, prayer and innumerable charitable acts of lovingkindness are a model for how to live a meaningful life.

So much is right and so much is wrong in Israel but there is always the possibility of repenting, praying and fixing what is broken, what is not yet right. As a Conservative Jewish leader, I have been deeply involved in efforts to create a permanent place at Robinson’s Arch for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, now with the active participation of the government; indeed, recently facilitated by Prime Minister Netanyahu himself.

I engage with this effort fueled by my belief in the resiliency of Israel and the Jewish People and I engage in other efforts as well, as do so many of us. I find this particular project so meaningful is because in that very place, Jewish belief, resiliency and history come together with powerful resonance.

Thinking about the resiliency and meaning of Israel through the lens of Yom Kippur, I am reminded that Theodor Herzl said that Zionism is a return to Judaism even before it is a return of the Jewish people to their land.

So let’s liberate our conversations of Israel from being only about the land. In the spirit of the Jubilee year, now upon us, let’s free ourselves from this mental enslavement.

Lately, I have been thinking about the power of co-creation. This is a 21st Century buzzword and a potent, timely idea. Israel provides us with the ultimate opportunity in co-creation. That is a very Jewish enterprise, requiring resilience, the capacity for forgiveness and the belief that tomorrow will be a better day.

For this special Yom Kippur, which falls also on Shabbat, I am calling for a deep engagement with the concept of Israel as well as the complex reality. I am daring us to dive into the heart of the Zionist dream; I am imploring my brothers and sisters to build bridges across oceans and continents so that we may be engaged deeply with Israel.

I am asking for the acknowledgement that Israel is miraculous and that miracles are sometimes messy.

At the end of the Neilah service, which concludes Yom Kippur with a bracing blast of the Shofar, we read about the centrality of Israel and Jerusalem, about kibbutz galuyot, the in-gathering of the exiles.

Let us end our intellectual and existential exile from Israel by seeing her in the fullness of her present day reality. Let us absorb her resilience and beauty. On Yom Kippur, let us see our own deeds as linked together with the global fellowship of the Jewish People. Let us pray and meditate and converse together. Let us co-create the next chapter of Jewish history.

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