Justice and Respect in Israel: A sermon for the High Holidays, 2010
With many thanks to Rabbi Robert Dobrusin for this excellent introduction to RHR-Israel's work.
One of the most familiar prayers of the High Holy Day liturgy is U’ntaneh Tokef. The words of this prayer send a chilling feeling down our spine: “mi yiheyeh u’mi yamut”, who will live and who will die.
Regardless of our personal theology and to what degree we believe that God controls the length of our days, these words give us pause to consider the aspects of our physical lives which we can control: what we eat and drink, how we deal with stress, how we take care to prevent illness. It is appropriate that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur be the times when we make the decision to take steps to improve our physical lives.
But, as important as the length of our days is, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur must be about more than our diet and our commitment to exercise. The holy days are a time of teshuva, repentance, returning to the proper path: the path of proper behavior, awareness of the moral and ethical in life, respect for others; values our tradition teaches and urges us to uphold at all times.
If the only concern we had was the length of our days, we would spend today at the gym or studying the latest trends in nutrition. But, as evidenced by our gathering here today: physical survival, physical existence, is not enough. Caring about the quality of our lives is of critical importance.
Another reason that we gather this evening is to be with our fellow Jews and that demonstrates our deep concern for being part of our people and that concern reaches both around the corner and around the world. And, as a new year dawns, we express that concern for our brothers and sisters in the State of Israel.
We are fully aware that in this world of tension and uncertainty, in this world of anti-Israel rhetoric and actions, Israel’s long-term security, its very existence, is threatened. We stand with Israel in its quest for security, pray for the safety and welfare of those who defend her and commit ourselves to doing what we can, from a distance, to insure her survival.
But just as we do not come to shul with only our physical existence in mind, Israel’s future is dependent not only in insuring her physical security. Israel’s future depends as much on the quality of her soul. And like our souls, Israel’s soul will not be saved through prayer or observance of the mitzvot alone. It will be saved by the willingness to examine the moral and ethical issues that can no longer be ignored. It will be saved by listening to and learning from the voices of conscience of those who truly love her, who are fully aware of what uncertainties she faces but who understand that the health of a nation goes beyond physical security to encompass the moral and spiritual values it espouses and follows.
Absolutely, physical survival must come first but survival must have a purpose and that purpose comes with dedication to the vision of a just society, one who treats its own people and its neighbors with justice and respect.
It is in this context that I call to your attention the work of Rabbis for Human Rights, an organization that for over 20 years has given voice to the Zionist ideal and the Jewish tradition of human rights.
RHR has championed the cause of the poor in Israel; supported the rights of Israel’s minorities and Palestinians in the West Bank; worked to stop the abuse of foreign workers; endeavored to guarantee the upkeep of Israel’s public health care system; promoted the equal status of women; helped Ethiopian Jews; battled trafficking in women; and more.
Rabbis for Human Rights is not a political organization in that it doesn’t espouse particular political positions. Rather, it concerns itself with policy decisions which affect individuals living in Israel and in the West Bank and works within the legal system within Israel to represent those whose rights have been abused.
As a lover of Israel, I am truly appreciative of the work that RHR does. As a Rabbi, I am proud of the work that RHR does. Too often, we hear Rabbis in Israel make statements that do not reflect the values of equality, respect for all human beings and the importance of ethics and morals in our world. I am proud that I have colleagues in Israel who are willing to use their Rabbinic learning and training to reach out to those in Israel and under her control who are in need of support to see that their rights are respected.
Whether helping the members of a Bedouin family who do not have access to electric power and water; giving legal counsel to an Israeli woman whose rights within the legal system are being ignored; standing with the citizens of Sderot as they seek security from rockets; helping a Palestinian family separated from its olive grove by the separation barrier to harvest their olives while holding off threats by Jewish settlers; or standing with those whose homes are being threatened with destruction; Rabbis for Human Rights has taken on the difficult issues facing Israel and in so doing has, over the years, earned the respect of the court system and other institutions within Israel.
We are fond of talking about Israel as a democracy. We are fond of talking about Israel’s free press and its open and fair court system. These are legitimately sources of great pride. But, the institutions of democracy, free press and fair court system need to be protected and supported. Rabbis for Human Rights is an integral part of that protection and support and an assurance that the very values we hold dear are in fact a reality within the Jewish State.
We can disagree on the political decisions that Israel should make. We can disagree on how Israel can best respond to and plan for those who threaten her. We can disagree on how we in the Diaspora should express our opinions that affect daily life for Israelis. However, I hope that we all would agree that Israel’s future depends not only on her physical survival but on the quality of life for all of its citizens and all who are affected by her policies.
We are absolutely right in rejecting those who deny Israel’s legitimacy, who blame only Israel for the conflicts in the region and who believe that the world would be better served without a Jewish state. We must reject that opinion loudly and clearly with our voices, with travel to Israel, with support for our brothers and sisters.
But we must have a conscience and we must have a vision of a better time for all and therefore, even more so in these difficult times, we must support those of our brothers and sisters who are working to improve the quality of life for all of those living within her borders and under her control.
I urge you to learn more about Rabbis for Human Rights and to support their work. Please realize that this isn’t an issue of left vs. right, this is an issue of right and wrong, both for its own sake and for the future of the State we love.