As I think about Soviet Jews, their experience is like a modern Hanukkah. In the Hanukkah story, the Jewish people were denied their freedom to worship as they wanted, to fulfill God’s command.
Scholars teach us that the story is more nuanced; there were actually assimilating Jews who invited the Syrian Greeks and their philosophy into Israel, and there were Jews who opposed them who did not want to assimilate to the same extent. So, while there was an external force, the Syrian Greeks, there was also an internal civil war taking place among Jews.
Nonetheless, Jews who wanted to worship traditionally and who wanted to remain faithful to their understanding of the Torah were denied that right. Some 2200 years later, the Jewish people in the Soviet Union had a similar experience. We were the Maccabees of this modern story.
In the words of the haftarah that we just heard, we didn’t do it with power or might; we didn’t go to war, but we did it with our God-given spirit, kee im b’ruhi. In the words of Zekhariah the prophet, it was our divinely inspired spirit that overcame oppression and stemmed the tide. Jews were allowed to emigrate, and in the former Soviet Union, the floodgates were opened, and millions of Jews came to Israel and to America. Our next mission, then, was to raise the funds to resettle them and to bring them into a deeper contact with Judaism. As our bar-mitzvah described in his dvar Torah, they became immigrants in a new land.
It’s an incredibly powerful and moving story and one that happened just twenty years ago. We need to hear the stories of those in our own community who came from the former Soviet Union and those stories must be taught to us and to our children.
But we must remember that there are still causes that cry out to us as strongly as the Soviet Jews. Just as Joseph at the beginning of the parashah is imprisoned and alone, there is one particular Jew who is imprisoned and alone for doing nothing wrong except being an Israeli Jew. His name is Gilad Shalit; he’s an Israeli soldier captured by the Hamas terrorist organization, an organization that, among other vile acts, in 1996 murdered two of my best friends, Matt Eisenfeld and Sara Duker, may their memories only go higher, an organization that has taken over the Gaza Strip, creating a terrorist state that attacks Israel regularly by launching mortars and rockets into civilian areas.
Gilad has been imprisoned now for four and a half years, and I swore the day that he was taken captive that we would not forget him. Thus with each and every minyan, morning and evening, we recite a simple traditional prayer on his behalf, a prayer the Jews have recited for generations, for thousands of years, thinking of their captives.
Some of us have complex feelings about Israel. Some of us are disappointed that Israel is not compromising more for peace, and some of us are uncomfortable that Israel is doing as much as it is doing to compromise for peace. I am well aware that we have a broad range of political perspectives in our community, and some of us have ambivalence toward Israel given its religious positions.
Over the last few months I have been asked: ‘How can you, Rabbi, spend so much time supporting Israel when you are not even recognized as a Conservative rabbi, and you cannot perform a wedding in Israel without a Orthodox rabbi to co-officiate, a country where women are arrested at the kotel for wearing a tallit or carrying a sefer Torah, where women are beaten up because they wore tefillin and the strap marks are still showing on their arm, standing at a bus stop?’
I am left with some ambivalence. I love Israel. It is a place where I feel spiritually at home. Walking the streets, I feel proud to be a Jew. I can enjoy Israeli music; the combination of Hebrew and modern music is exciting and exhilarating. I can walk into restaurants and eat the food since most of it is kosher. The whole rhythm of living in Israel responds to the Jewish calendar. It’s a place where the Jewish people are acting out our dream of being a free people in our own land.
Is it riddled with problems? Sure.
It has many areas that need improvement.
Is it an unabashed success? It certainly is.
Resettling 700,000 Jews kicked out of Arab lands from 1948 to 1952, creating a modern, thriving economy – one of the most successful in the world.
It is miraculous and glorious.
So how can we do both? Can we support Israel in her time of need and push her to change?
My friends, we must walk that fine line. We are sophisticated Jews who understand that we can be both supportive of Israel on some levels and deeply critical on others. We can speak out and make sure that Israel is protected and sustained in a world that wants to eliminate Israel off the map– with enemies like Iran, who are dedicated and devoted to the destruction of the state of Israel physically, and other countries and people who are trying to destroy it through divestment, boycotts, and sanctions, the campaign of de-legitimatization.
We must all stand firm against that. We must double and triple our efforts to protect Israel. Much of my family lives in Israel. My friends live in Israel. They are counting on us.
At the same time, we must cry out for religious freedom, so that Jews who converted here in America will have equal rights with Jews in Israel. There must be huge reforms in Israel’s political system and its religious system, which is filled with corruption, and an Orthodox monopoly that is destroying Judaism in a way that we have not seen for thousands of years since the time of the destruction of the Second Temple.
But in order to fight these battles, we must also be engaged, and finally we must be fighting for Gilad Shalit. He’s counting on each one of us.
Joseph, alone, imprisoned at the beginning of this parashah was blessed with a gift of being able to interpret dreams, which gave him an opportunity. Gilad has no such chance. We will have to be his dreamers. We will have to petition Pharaoh to free him. We will have to effect change. My friends, while our position on Israel is nuanced, it must be strong. Take home the insert in your Shofar bulletin and petition the Red Cross to demand that he simply get a visit.
We must all go to Israel, visit Israel, connect to Israel deeply, even as we seek its improvement and its change. We must cry out and redeem our captive, Gilad Shalit.
I look forward to working with all of you on these projects.
Not with power and with might, but with our spirit.
May it be God’s will speedily and swiftly. And let us say, Amen.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Hanukkah.