Sermon on Morning Rosh Hashanah 2012/5773
Hatikvah – Living with Hope
Israel is “the most watched country in the world.” That’s how Rabbi Dan Gordis explains why we never stop reading or hearing about Israel.
And why is Israel watched, written about, and scrutinized so extensively by the media? It’s because, as the only democracy in the Middle East, Israel is the most congenial place for journalists to be in the Middle East. It’s safe. Freedom of speech is total. Little wonder that Israel has more journalists per square feet than almost any place on the globe.
This is good news for the Jews. If you want to know what’s happening in Israel, it’s very easy to get information. Everything going on inside Israel seems to get coverage, although I don’t believe one event from last February got the attention it deserves.
I’m referring to the swearing-in ceremony for the new chief justice of Israel’s Supreme Court. At the end of that event, the 15 justices on the Court plus all those in the audience rose for the singing of Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah. However, the big news that made headlines throughout Israel was that the only Arab on the Court, Justice Salim Joubran, stood silently during the anthem. He didn’t open his mouth once.
A firestorm ensued. How could such a prominent figure not sing Hatikvah? To which some Israelis (including Prime Minister Netanyahu) responded, “How could an Israeli citizen who is not Jewish – even if he is a Supreme Court Justice – sing Hatikvah?”
The words are pretty clear…”A Jewish spirit sings…our hope is not lost…the hope of two thousand years…to be a free people in our land….
If you’re not Jewish, how could you express those sentiments? How, really, can one expect an Israeli Arab to sing about the soul of a Jew stirring for his country?
This is actually a huge question because it goes beyond the lyrics of a single song to the larger issue of what Israelis mean (what we mean) when we talk about Israel as the Jewish state. It turns out that, going back even before the founding of the State, thoughtful Jews were asking tough questions about the place of Judaism in the country they wanted to found. How Jewish would the Jewish state be? Whose definition of Judaism would obtain? And, of course, what would all this mean for citizens who were not Jewish?
If we Americans are right now debating the shape of America in the coming four years, suffice it to say Israelis are always debating the character of their tiny country.
Their conversation is fascinating. This Fall I’m co-teaching a course with Rabbi Katz of Temple Beth El on the culture and values of Israel as expressed in its literature. This winter she and I will be co-teaching an even more intense course on the connection between us and Israel. We will literally be studying with Rabbi Donniel Hartman of Jerusalem via a video lecture series that will touch on topics from Israeli identity to battlefield morality, religious pluralism and human rights. You can register for the Fall course now. Information on the winter experience will follow in November.
Plus…plus….plus….This April our entire Springfield Jewish community is sponsoring a trip to Israel. I will be going. Over 40 people from across the community have already signed up. If you can, you should too. Ask me about the trip and I’ll be honored to share the details.
Meanwhile, as important as talking about Israel is, I want to pivot away from Israel itself right now. It is, after all Rosh Hashanah – a day for introspection – and so I want to switch focus in a High Holiday kind of way. Instead of asking if Arabs can sing Hatikvah, I wonder if you and I can sing Hatikvah.
Let me be clear: I’m not asking if you can carry a melody. I’m also not asking if your Hebrew is strong enough to deal with the words of Hatikvah. I’m asking instead whether you mean the words of Hatikvah when they come your way. Even if you have been to Israel many times over, even if you can easily say you love Israel OR perhaps especially if talking about love of Israel makes you squirm, I’m asking you what we ought to do with Hatikvah.
It’s got a great melody, but do you believe the words?
Last year on Kol Nidre I affirmed that you can be a Jew without believing in God (although I didn’t want to advocate for that position). This year I am raising a new question: Can you be a Jew if you can’t stand up straight and say…
So long as within the inmost heart a Jewish spirit sings, so long as the eye looks eastward, gazing toward Zion, our hope is not lost – the hope of two thousand years: to be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.
What kind of a Jew are you if you can’t embrace those Hatikvah words?
Here’s a story. Steven Cohen, a sociologist, a faculty member at Hebrew Union College and NYU, a lover of Israel, tells what happened a few years ago when he convened a group of well-known young Jewish innovators. The group spent several hours exploring their Jewish commitments and ideals. By coincidence, their gathering took place on Yom Ha-atzmaut – Israel Independence Day.
With the California sunshine beaming through the windows, Cohen says he felt inspired at one point to say, “Friends, I’d like to celebrate the good feelings we’ve established here today by recognizing together that this is Israel’s Independence Day. Let’s stand and sing Hatikvah.”
Here is Cohen’s description of what happened next. “The room braced and people wouldn’t stand…All these young leaders had spent time in Israel, perhaps a year of study. But they wouldn’t sing Hatikvah on Yom Ha-atzmaut…Incredibly, some of the best Jewish leadership…couldn’t take part in a moment of Zionist patriotism. I’ve been working in the shadow of that moment ever since.”
What do you make of that narrative: committed Jews not singing Hatikvah? What’s wrong with them?
Professor Cohen offers this explanation. It’s not that these young Jews were anti-Israel. They were, in fact, knowledgeable about Israel and they were engaged with Israel. However they wouldn’t sing Hatikvah because they didn’t want to support what Israel was doing.
For earlier generations of American Jews, this wasn’t and isn’t a distinction. To be engaged with Israel was the same as to support Israel. Engagement and support meant caring about and visiting Israel, and wanting Israel to be secure even if you vehemently opposed the policies of any given Israel government.
For younger Jews (and others too), it’s not so straightforward. They may care about Israel and they may even know a lot about Israel. They are engaged. But they are leery of being “pro-Israel” if that appears to mean agreeing with various Israeli policies they find regressive.
Let’s say, for example, that someone doesn’t agree with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policies vis a vis building settlements on the West Bank. Such a person might say, “I can’t abide the Prime Minister’s politics. Therefore, I can’t sing Hatikvah and seem to endorse what he is doing.”
I don’t think so because you know enough to separate between the government and the country at large. Your commitment is larger than your politics. So you remain both engaged and “pro-American” if that means (through thick and thin) you are proud to be part of the ongoing American enterprise.
Or remember our conversation about God. I’ve said many times over that if you were to tell me you don’t believe in God, I would ask you,” Which God…what definition of God do you not believe in?”
Tell me, then, that you can’t sing Hatikvah and I will ask you, “For which reason. If it’s because of today’s politics, I suggest that the song isn’t advocating right wing or left wing politics. Hatikvah is about the very idea that we Jews ought to have the chance to build a country. “
For me, Hatikvah is basic. It precedes politics. It doesn’t make politics go away. It just embraces more than politics.
Another story. This one requires that you know the actor Richard Dreyfuss. Think Jaws or Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then think back to a much earlier film called The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. This was a movie (based on a Mordecai Richler novel) set in Montreal of the 1940’s and 50’s. Dreyfuss plays the part of a Jewish teenager called Duddy Kravitz.
In the story, Duddy is very close to his grandfather whom he frequently visits in his vegetable garden behind his house. Duddy’s “zayde” is from Europe. He’s come to Canada for freedom and, whenever Duddy asks why he lavishes so much attention on his little plot of land, “zayde” answers, “Duddy, my child, a man is nobody unless he has some land.”
In the movie, Duddy completely misconstrues what his grandfather means and goes about virtually stealing a lake in the Laurentian Mountains outside Montreal. When he finally manages to get “zayde” out to the lake and explains what he did to get the lake and the land around it as a gift for his grandfather, the old man weeps.
It’s a gorgeous piece of property but Duddy hasn’t understood that it’s not the size or beauty of the land that matters. When his grandfather digs his fingers into the soil of his little garden, he’s thinking of history. He’s remembering 2000 years of not having land. He’s remembering the insecurity and the feeling of having no roots. Working even the tiniest bit of soil in Montreal with love and integrity links him back to Jews who loved their own country 2000 years earlier.
“Gazing toward Zion…a free people in our land…the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
When you sing Hatikvah, it’s really another way of recapping the whole Jewish story. It’s not about a beautiful setting in the Laurentians or the Berkshires. It’s a way of calling to mind Duddy’s grandfather, your grandfather, your great great-grandfather in Pinsk, Minsk, Budapest or Odessa who created Jewish life for generations, but did so never quite knowing if their home would still be their home come next year or even ten years hence.
Hatikvah is history. It precedes smart phones and digital TV’s. It reminds me of my roots. L’dor va-dor…From generation to generation.
Which reminds me of something that happened only this past June: The Israeli Opera staged a performance of Carmen at the foot of Masada. It was a huge undertaking involving 750 personnel, the construction of a stage in the desert, buses, food, and security. 7000 people attended and when it was all over, many remembered one part of the spectacular more than any other.
Immediately before the overture, the theater went dark. From somewhere, a voice then said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Hatikvah.”
Instantly, the entire mountain of Masada (where Jewish defenders fought off Roman legions 2000 years ago) was lit up and spontaneously, without instruction, 7000 people rose, stood silently, and sang Hatikvah.
Imagine all of us standing at Fort McHenry in Baltimore singing the Star Spangled Banner right where the words were created. That fort didn’t fall. In the same way, Masada never fell. Where the Roman camps once stood, Jews were gathering to celebrate music and their return to liberty.
Hatikvah is about the perilous fight and Jewish life being recreated before our eyes.
Hatikvah makes me proud, although I have to tell you a final story that captures the most inner dimension of all these words.
It’s 1974. It’s a year after the Yom Kippur War in which Israel had come close to extinction. A surprise attack by the Arabs on Yom Kippur had led to great casualties. There were moments when it looked as if Israel would not survive.
One year later (after victory) the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra made a tour of the United States and came to Cincinnati where Marsha and I were living. The concert hall was jammed. The anticipation was great. To tell you the truth, I can’t remember what music was on the program for that evening. I can only remember how the orchestra played the national anthems at the beginning of the concert.
They began with the Star Spangled Banner and did a beautiful job climaxing the last lines of the song with trombones, trumpets, and cymbals. It was spectacular and left a giant glow in the hall.
Then came Hatikvah – the anthem of Israel with its jets, tanks, and Uzis – and what did we hear? Violins, cellos, clarinets, and flutes. The quiet melody. The resonant harmony. If a national anthem could be about peace, this was it.
Now I know that Israel is neither soft nor sentimental. The landscape is harsh, Rocks outnumber the trees. But here’s the thing about Hativah. It represents the foil to that reality.
The song is prayerful. It is a kind of prayer at the heart of which I hear the dream - “The Jewish spirit sings…[that] hope is not lost.”
Ultimately, that’s how this poem, which became a song, touches me. It’s why I believe it. It’s why I have to sing it.
Not with a flag. Not with a band. Not in uniform. Not advocating that the government build more settlements. Not endorsing the narrowness of the ultra-Orthodox. Not without sympathy for Israeli Arabs or the Palestinians who cannot seem to get their act together after almost 65 years.
I sing the song because it’s part of my people’s saga. I sing it because it reminds me that my people’s story is as old as Abraham setting out from Babylonia to arrive in Canaan. Isaiah and Jeremiah roamed the hills of that place. The Torah and the Haggadah were written there.
And, best of all, I sing Hatikvah because I can’t think of a more necessary ingredient in life than hope.
Hatikvah – The hope.
That’s what brings us here this morning. That’s what gets us up every day. It’s our hope that another day means another opportunity at living. It’s our hope that today we’ll do better than yesterday. It’s our hope that we will feel better, feel stronger, love better, be loved.
The prophet Zechariah captures my meaning perfectly when he says that we Jews…we human beings…are asirei tikvah. We are “prisoners of hope.” Or since “asirei” can also be translated “harnessed,” shall we say we are harnessed to hope. We’ve hitched our wagon to a star. *
We’ve been here before. We’ve assembled like this so many times. But we return. We all return at this season and we do so with eyes, hearts, and souls open wide.
We’re back because that’s what our ancestors taught us to do. That’s what God pushes us to do. Take another step. Then another step.
You can do it. We can all do it.
Hatikvah – It’s a prayer. It’s our conviction.
Walk with hope.
It’s got us this far.
Hatikvah - It will surely carry us into our New Year.
*With thanks to Rabbi Robert Kahn (z”l) for his interpretation of Zechariah.
© 2012/5773 Sinai Temple 1100 Dickinson St. Springfield Massachusetts 01108