Preaching Without a Choir?

I’ve been extremely reluctant to write this piece. Asking you to ‘enjoy’ it is probably asking too much; it is more likely to enrage than to please. So, I’ll make a more modest request. Just read and consider.

I imagine we’ve all felt this way sometime in the past few months: Powerless. Overwhelmed. Angry.

The hatred that has emerged is not surprising and no words or arguments will turn it aside. We Jews are meant – as far as the world is concerned – to have no place to be. We were expelled from the Arab world because of Zionism – but we cannot be permitted to live in Zion.

We are always Ivrim – those from elsewhere.

No matter what we do, it doesn’t seem to be enough. Three hostages left signs, waved flags, removed their shirts. They did everything right – and their own people shot them down. On the very cusp of rescue, their lives were ended. I’m not angry at the soldiers. Terrible, terrible, things happen in war and there isn’t some formula that makes it all go away. But it all seems so very pointless.

We are wrapped up in a dance of death and destruction. My people want only to survive, but there is no peace in our survival. There is only a seemingly endless burning. We are the Menorah – the burning bush. The flames lick at us and yet we are never consumed.

In many ways, it is better than it was. 13,000 Jews died in a single day in Auschwitz. But it is not good. If they could, the Mullah’s of Iran, the Commanders of Hamas and the Secretary General of Hezbollah would kill 7 million of us in an afternoon. The possibility is not as distant as we would like to believe it is.

We sacrifice our young men to a far more dangerous battle in Gaza because our erstwhile allies would deny us munitions otherwise. It is not hard to imagine them denying us munitions even though we risk so many fighting the battle our enemies have chosen.

When I ask “why?” – I’m not asking them why they hate us. They are centered in hatred. There is no argument that will turn them aside. There is no force that will drive them to accept us in this place – or any place. There no reality that we can share – they can see the slaughter of Oct 7th and celebrate it one day – and then deny it happened the very next. They quote Hadiths – the equivalent of Midrashim – and then build their faith around them. They have twisted their entire world around the cause not only of our humiliation (which the Koran promises both Christians and Jews) but of our destruction.

And so, I don’t ask them ‘Why?’

After all, what have we ever done to Iran? If they cared about Muslims, they’d chant “Death to China”, or India, or Russia or Syria or Pakistan – or perhaps even themselves.

But they don’t care about Muslims.

They care about us.

They have been set against us. They have been set against us, with a hatred that is entirely unreasonable.

When I ask ‘Why?’, I am not asking them. I am asking G-d why they been set against us?

It may be uncomfortable for some of you to read this, but I believe we are in this land not because we deserve it – but because G-d promised it to us. The promise was not fulfilled for two thousand years. We suffered in galut (exile) – and not just under Christians Europe but under Muslims throughout the Islamic world. The promise of our return was only fulfilled when it had to be.

In this week’s Torah portion, Yosef predicts that the Jewish people will be pakad and will reenter the land. Pakad is getting something because you deserve it. But we do not leave Egypt because we pakad. Instead, G-d brings us out of Egypt because he remembers us.

In the Torah, such memory is connected to contract. Just as with Yishmael, G-d acts to help those who do not deserve simply because He promised He would.

We are not deserving of our return to Zion. But if we had not returned to Zion, then the aftermath of the Holocaust would have seen us erased from this world. G-d remembered us, because if He hadn’t then He would never have been able to fulfill his contract to our forefathers.

Years ago, I preached – yes, I preached and on Rosh Hashana no less – that the tunnels and the rockets were a modern-day fulfillment of the Biblical curses of skies and earth of Iron and Copper. They are a modern-day fulfillment of a promise in which war – war meant to wake us up would fill our skies and the earth below us. I quoted Vayikra (Lev.) 26:19, which reads “I will break the pride of your power and I will give you a heaven like iron…”.

We call our greatest defensive weapon Kipat Barzel – the Iron Dome – and yet we do not see the curse it embodies. We have not woken up.

In 2018 I preached – yes, preached – on the first day of Rosh Hashana:

Look around and you will realize that among our many modern blessings, we are living in an era of ancient curses. Hashem is using our world to warn us that we are on the wrong path. And what happens if we ignore these warnings? What happens is that we lose sovereignty in our own land. We are to be ruled by others; and we are to suffer overwhelming horrors as a result.

With the tunnels and the rockets, Hashem is warning us. We may be worried about the world threatening our state. But we should be worried about Hashem our G-d abandoning us. Because Hashem Himself is challenging the legitimacy of the Modern State of Israel…

But this is not a hopeless situation. G-d gives us a solution. To counter the threat of the curses we must love Hashem, walk in His ways, and to keep his commandments. It is not a just a formula – it is a progression… To Love, To Walk and to Guard.

I described how we can do that. How Rosh Hashana is a day in which we can begin to accomplish that.

On the second day, I said:

The second time we blow will be for Zichronot (for Zocher). When listening to these shofar blasts, I want you to allow all those fears that you have – of destruction at the hands of our enemies – to overrun you. You must allow them to overrun you.

Drop your defenses and allow the horror of what our neighbors want to come upon you full force. Image your homes destroyed, your children slaughtered, our women raped. And everything you’ve built, gone. Imagine losing our land, yet again.

Allow the possibility of it to fill your soul.

And then cry out for salvation.

I got in a lot of trouble for those speeches. Like some of my other speeches, all people heard was one little part.

Since 1935, 81 new nations have been created. 81. Along the way, every one of them had to determine Who they were and Why they were created. And they all had essentially the same answer: We are India for Indians. We are Sudan for Sudanese. We are Tunisia for Tunisians. All of them did this. the world has accepted their answers. With one exception. Israel. So, in order to strengthen our legitimacy, it was only natural for us to follow the world’s lead. We passed a law this year that said: We are the Jewish Nation – for the Jewish people. But when we did this, we made a fundamental mistake.

People were so wrapped up in the politics of the moment, that they couldn’t hear the message. They just heard me coming out against the Nation-State Law. They didn’t hear me say, near the end, that “we must be the Jewish nation for the Jewish mission.”

We are not here for us. We are here as G-d’s people. To share the path of fulfillment – the path of goodness and holiness and kindness for a thousand generations.

I find myself routinely recoiling at those who claim conquest is a modern-day commandment. Those who make it core to their faith. Living in the land, yes. Owning the land, yes. But conquest is only a necessary evil. G-d promises us the land. It is to be a gift. But it has never simply been a gift – because we have never earned it. And so, we conquer – with the residents of the land serving as thorns in our existence.

My son’s Yeshiva organized a two-day hike to Jerusalem, walking in the footsteps of those who reconquered the old city in 1967. We arrived mere feet from the Holy of Holies sweaty and dirty and tired. As if the mere echo of the pride of conquest brought us holiness. But holiness is not sweat or dirt. It is not conquest. It is the experience of a world outside of time. Outside of creation and destruction. Holiness is eternity; there is to be no blade that touches the Holy Altar.

And yet we fall into the patterns of glory, conquest, and self-honor. I watched a Rabbi recently speak about how the images of the war must be images of pride. How it is honorable and praiseworthy to give our lives to create images of pride, instead of images of hostages being dragged away.

But it our pride really the goal? Are images what we dedicate our lives to?

The pride of G-d, yes. But our pride simply clouds our judgement – culminating in the self-worship of the image of the calf.

In the Torah, ‘men of name’ are always evil men. Our pride makes us less than we should be. Just as the Torah predicts, when we choose our King – even today – we favor those who value wealth, pleasure and power.

I have spoken about humility between our people. I believe our nation, in its disparate parts, is close to what it should be. We have our people of holiness and our people of creation. But we have no mutual recognition that both are working in the service of the One G-d. That we have a mutually beneficial cycle of creation and meaning. Instead, we tear at each other – imagining that the other half of our puzzle does not belong. We remain two halves of an incomplete whole.

We happen to be doing many of the right things, but we remain a Jewish Nation for the Jewish people.

Those same people who should be able to read and internalize the words “I will break the pride of your power and I will give you a heaven like iron” are the ones who pass laws that use our power to reinforce our pride. Even those who are religious seem lost in their service of G-d. We cannot hear each other, and we cannot hear G-d.

I love Israel. I see Israel as a culmination of human civilization. I see Israel as an ingathering of cultures from around the world – all distinct and yet all so fundamentally connected. I see as a whirlwind of creation and beauty and thought and argument. It is messy, it is difficult, but it is so beautiful. It is organic and unpredictable and unparalleled.

We are so close to what we should be. And yet G-d turns our enemies against us.

We argue online – pointlessly. Even as we want to be doing something, we recognize that it is all beyond our power. We don’t want to face it, but it is there. A single small mistake and Houthi cruise missile could kill thousands. A rejection of our peace with Morocco and the straits of Gibraltar could join the Bab Al-Mandab Strait in leaving us ever more isolated. An EMP could render our defenses nearly meaningless.

We are in G-d’s hands, and yet I feel like we do not want to hear G-d’s voice.

In my own powerlessness, I pivoted. I sugarcoated my words; I delivered upbeat messages. I wrote a book about what I’ve learned – a positive text about fulfillment, family, children, and community. Just yesterday, I wrote an op-ed which, when reading between the lines, is about dissolving the violent resistance to the Word of G-d and enabling our different societies to evolve together. And I have spoken about the presence of G-d – the tiny miracles of His revelation that I have personally experienced.

But my impact, as near as I can tell, us been far from impactful.

I want to contribute in the ways I can, but I sometimes feel as if change that is needed is far far beyond what we are capable of. We wave our white flags and yet we remain – we all remain – in the crosshairs of Hashem.

I didn’t want to write this piece. I wanted to about the evolution of culture. I was going to write about how sanctions lead to the evolution of cultures dominated by evil. Under sanctions, only those willing to short-circuit the rule of law gain power. I was going to discuss how sanctions reinforce evil governments sanctions rather than weakening them. From North Korea to Russia to Iran to Cuba, their militaries remain powerful; and their people grow ever more enslaved. Even with sanctions and blockade, Hamas smuggled in and operated tunneling machines. (sadly, continual aid does much the same thing as continual blockade. Aid grants wealth and power for the immoral people who can seize and redirect it.)

But I did not write about culture. I did not write about it because I don’t know how to make it better.

I feel like I have something I must be saying, but I do not know what it is or how it can be heard.

In this, I know I am not alone. All of us have something to contribute. The problem is that while all of us know how to harm a culture, we all seem to know so little about how to help one evolve.

Perhaps it is a comfort that mankind is not alone in this. After all, G-d has been cultivating us – like a tree in His garden – for thousands of years. Our branches have been snipped, our water rationed, our fruit harvested. Despite all of this, we are still repeating the sins of those who worshipped the Calf.

We are repeating the sins of those who thought the nation itself was worthy of worship.

We remain the Jewish Nation for the Jewish people.

As I sit in front of my computer at 2:30 in the morning, I can’t imagine that I will be heard.

Nonetheless, I cannot help but speak.

The time of Teshuva – of Repentance – is upon us.

I believe there is a broad spectrum of ways in which we can worship G-d.  I know the Halacha does not agree – and I do not practice this Judaism – but I find beauty even in taking a bus to visit family for Shabbat. I know the Halacha does not agree, but I find greater goodness in creating a medical technology than in learning Torah.

What is critical to me is that we we take the first steps on the path to G-d – the path of creative goodness, of restful holiness and everlasting kindness.  We need not battle over the finer points of the law.

The formula remains the same as it was thousands of years ago:

We must love Hashem, walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments.

To make it simple, we must Love, Walk and Guard.

This Torah reading – the last of Bereshit – is a Torah reading of change. It is the telling of the end of an epoch and of the beginning of slavery in exile. Our forefather Israel seems lost between the past and present. He seems unclear and unable to see. But then, when he touches the representatives of the future, he is transformed. He sees the path we are to follow. He sees the destination we are to reach.

Yaacov, Israel, finally understands.

Please may it be Your will Hashem our G-d and the G-d of our Forefathers that we not be living on the cusp of slavery.

Please may it be Your will, may we find a way to deserve our return, that our enemies be turned aside, that we live in peace and that we finally understand the path we must follow.

Show us, and help us, live as the Jewish Nation in service of the Jewish Mission.

Shabbat Shalom


If you are interested in learning more about the sources and explanations behind the various interpretations above, let me know. I can also make the 2018 Rosh Hashana Speeches available.

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