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“I Was in Israel,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

August 4, 2023 | 17 Av 5783

Welcome again to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here. For this Shabbat, I share the d’var Torah I offered last week at Qabbalat Shabbat about what is happening in Israel.

Those who are onsite, I want you to follow my pointing finger. And look at that flag (Israeli flag). If someone gave you that flag, would you wave it?

Now if you go to the protests in Israel, as I did, held each Saturday night after Shabbat, you will find angry and curious, and frustrated and active citizens. They represent the diversity of the Israeli community. You might conclude the people’s relationship with the current government is a mess.

And it is.

Police present, some on horses whose legs are much longer than I am tall, drums beating and horns blasting with loads — loads — of Israeli flags waving. Everyone gets a flag. They handed them out from the beginning of the protests months ago. They are everywhere.

Everyone chants, “Democracy” (except with an Israeli accent) And then at the end, something happens that is not messy at all. The sound of Hatikvah, the National Anthem fills the air, voices singing, flags swaying, and then people either march (in Jerusalem) toward the Prime Minister’s house or home. It was eerily peaceful.

During the time that I was in Jerusalem and for a short while Tel Aviv, much of life moved about in ordinary ways. Beaches filling up with umbrellas and family outings (which I was there and saw), restaurants humming with business, people waiting for the bus or pushing strollers — many strollers from a baby boom, the full array of life and individuals living their lives.

Protests. Flags waving. People living their lives. It’s the full experience of a nation.

But we know that trouble has been brewing, something that threatens to create a wide breach for the land and the people. In a week when we commemorated Tisha B’Av, the destruction of the two Temples in 586 BCE by the Babylonians and in 70 CE by the Romans that ended the Jewish commonwealth, the comparison in our own day is all too real. Those ancients moments of Jewish sovereignty in history had a similar time frame of existence as Israel has been a state. They became overruled by zealots, and they corrupted power to serve themselves. What is different is that the concept of governmental checks and balances was not even a twinkle in their eyes.

We read from Lamentations as part of Tisha B’Av:

“See, O Eternal One, I am distressed, my innards are roiled, my heart churns within me. (1:20)

רְאֵ֨ה יְהֹוָ֤ה כִּֽי־צַר־לִי֙ מֵעַ֣י חֳמַרְמָ֔רוּ נֶהְפַּ֤ךְ לִב

This is how so many feel in Israel today. I feel this way, too. Maybe you do, as well.

As distressed and roiled as we may be, it doesn’t mean the end of this very challenged third Jewish commonwealth. It does mean, however, that the threat of a spiritual destruction looms large, as the writer and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari called it in an op ed piece in HaAretz. The inner life and existence of the nation may implode.

As we dig deeper and articulate more of the issues and what is at stake, I want to be clear. This moment is a time for us to lean in and not pull out. We need to understand the situation because unlike the previous Jewish commonwealths over 2,000 years ago, the Jewish diaspora exists in a way that would have been impossible in ancient times. We still have a voice.

The message tonight is to stay engaged. Learn more. We are responsible for one another.

Now I’m going to try to bring to light some of the various issues. I will explain all of them, so when you leave here you will be very clear on everything that is happening.


As many of you know, I have been engaged with the Shalom Hartman Institute as part of a cohort of rabbis from across the denominations to study together in Jerusalem in a multi-year Rabbinic Leadership Institute. The pandemic extended our participation. We have studied Israel, Judaism, Jewish ritual, and the meaning of liberal ideas and ideology separate from denominations and politics.

The Hartman Institute is not a political organization. It is a beit midrash, a place of study, and that is what I have been doing these past four years when I have travelled to Israel, and each week on Wednesdays between travel to Israel.

The Hartman Institute prides itself on the idea of Hartman Torah, citing a passage from the Tosefta Sotah 7:12:

Make yourself a heart of many rooms.

I want to say that again. The heart has many rooms.

The attitude and approach that there are many perspectives worthy of consideration and study animates the way learning happens. These words from the Talmud stimulates the beit midrash and the hevruta experience:

These and these are the living words of God. (Eruvin 13b)

We make peace and exist with others when we are willing to understand the other’s perspective even though we may totally disagree.

So I want to share with you a larger picture. And you may totally disagree with what you hear me say. And that is okay. But maybe we can understand a little bit of why all of this is happening, and not see every side as evil — although there are some sides that are evil.

From what I have culled from my learning at Hartman — and I admit I can’t summarize fully, but I will try nonetheless — the underlying challenges that Israel faces has been building for years — decades, actually. Power in the government is off balance. There is no constitution. So, who decides if the law is acceptable or reasonable? Their version of the Attorney General advises what could be regarded as law. Over the years, the elected members of the Knesset could make laws but then those laws could easily be voted down by the Supreme Court based on the advice of the Attorney General. As a result, the governing body elected by the people would be robbed of their legislative power. Many on the conservative side have held deep resentment with this shift in power long before this particular Knesset.

Those on the left regard the Supreme Court as the ultimate protector of rights and to ensure there won’t be discrimination. Since 1992, the Basic Law (which in some way is a building block of a constitution — but it is not the constitution)… the Basic Law that was added of Human Dignity and Liberty has helped to secure such rights.

One side claims its power is constantly being usurped by the Court. They look at the past and what has happened. The other side worries that the Court won’t be able to protect the rights of the individual and those who are vulnerable. They worry about the future. These issues have been simmering for years with the potential to boil over and scald the nation. And this is what we are witnessing now.

Netanyahu took a very specific approach when he created this particular Knesset. He allowed a kind of gathering of ministers and leaders who had a particular agenda to serve themselves.

From the place where I sit and I think, many of the protesters, the majority that now rules potentially teeters on a theocracy with no little concern for minorities, the Palestinian people, women, non-religious people (that would include us because there is only one way from the Haredi perspective to be Jewish), Arab citizens and LGBTQ rights; while it increases ultra Orthodox (Haredi) rabbinic authority and overreach. The benevolence will be for themselves as they have clearly articulated publicly when they agreed to be part of the majority coalition. Its ministers and its ideology misrepresents half of the country built upon a coalition that doesn’t articulate concern or act in a way that cares about what those citizens think. Netanyahu has built a dangerous coalition and has appointed — and truly, this is well-known, dishonest and inappropriate ministers in this cabinet.

Now we students of American history know of James Madison and the Federalist papers. He emphasized that what protects us from the power of politicians is not their personalities, but the structure of government itself. He understood the protective force of checks and balances.

What is going on in Israel is a very quick movement to try to fix something that many have seen as wrong — not just on the far right. They are moving way too fast in ways that are hurtful and dangerous.

On Wednesday, [last week] an Israeli Reform rabbi quoted one of the ministers in the majority coalition who sought to explain the real source of all the troubles. Want to guess? Reform Jews — it’s clear!! Israel Eichler, Knesset Member and a Haredi leader, asserted that “Today’s anarchy is organized by the Reform assimilators. Much like the Arab Revolt, this is not a national or class struggle. Rather it is a war between a culture of evil and the existence of a Jewish state.”

You see how easy it is to make the other so evil?

Now, that piece, to me, is an important message of how we move forward. Because I think this is a huge compliment that he thinks Reform and Liberal Jews hold such authority. As Reform Jews here, and thinking about there, our voice matters.

The ending of this period in history remains unwritten. The true resolution will occur before our eyes. A new kind of Israeli identity is rising up — and this is something we spent a lot of time on this past summer at Hartman. Commitment to Israel no longer has to be from the Religious Zionists who claim Israel, as we have seen here, in unrighteous ways. The protests show that the flag and Israel belong to many more. The counter to Religious Zionists is not Unreligious Zionists or Nonreligious Zionists or even Secular Zionists. This group that has made the center really stand up and pay attention is actually opening up the possibility to create — and to really reinforce the idea — of a Liberal Zionism. A Liberal Zionism that includes ritual and Jewish life and Jewish practice and an understanding of the story of Zionism. It is also able to recognize the danger of the kind of agenda that promotes settlement building in illegal ways and for being discriminatory toward Israeli Arabs and Palestinians living near them. Liberal Zionism allows for a very different way that is inclusive. This group has reclaimed patriotism and has shown that their voice matters. And it includes Reform Jews. It is a new hope of many generations joined together yearning for a better path forward. So let’s shine the light there.

I end with this request. Let’s keep talking and asking questions. Rabbi Oberstein and I will stay after oneg. We’re going to take a seat and bring chairs around and sit with those who want to talk more. [We had a great discussion.]

The voice of the Reform movement is very important. Here are some ways you can help and connect with the Israeli Reform community:

  • Are you travelling to Israel and wish to join in the Saturday night protests? Our Reform movement will connect you to communities with which you can march in solidarity. Phone +972-2-6203448
  • Become a member of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). ARZA is the largest Zionist organization in the American Zionist Movement and the Israeli Reform movement needs us as their partners in this battle for the soul of Israel.
  • Contribute to the IMPJ/ARZA Emergency Fund. Reform congregations in Israel have received no money from this government unlike previous years.

Here are some helpful podcasts from Hartman:

And we also, at Temple Israel, thanks to members of the congregation, have our very own Israel Study Guide that is on our website and you can find many wonderful, informative articles and piece of information to be able to broaden and help us understand what is going on.

So I would like to end in a very incomplete attempt at trying to give some light, and some meaning, and some perspective to what is going on because the story’s not written, it’s not all done, and we’re going to keep talking and trying to figure out what is happening.

I’d like to share the words from an Israeli song by Ehud Manor,
I have No Other Country
אין לי ארץ אחרת
Ein Li Eretz Acheret

I have no other country
even if my land is aflame
Just a word in Hebrew
pierces my veins and my soul —
With a painful body, with a hungry heart,
Here is my home.

I will not stay silent
because my country changed her face

I will not give up reminding her
And sing in her ears until she
will open her eyes.

May all of our eyes and ears and hearts be open as we go forward. So may it be. Shabbat Shalom.

I continue to value the many comments you exchange with me through these Shabbat Awakenings. Share with me what you think here. Your email goes directly to me!

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Rabbi Elaine Zecher