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YK DAY 5783:  L’malah L’matah, and Something Else 

Rabbi Sidney Helbraun

Yom Kippur 5783, October 5, 2022

When I was a child, in the early 1970’s, to talk about Israel was to express a sense of hope and pride in our Jewish state. It was to feel a sense of security that in a world where old hatreds like anti-Semitism still abound – there was a land where I would be embraced because I was a Jew. To speak of Israel was even akin to believing in miracles, that after 2,000 years of wandering, being visitors in other people’s lands, we finally found our way back home.

To talk about Israel today is to immediately become embroiled in the world of politics. For some, Israel conjures up images of threats facing our people – Nuclear threats emanating from Iran; missiles: raining down from Hamas in Gaza, or threatened by Hezbollah in Lebanon; and terrorist threats from Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

For others, Israel conjures up issues of justice and injustice – the BDS movement, the oppression of Palestinians, the double standards and hypocrisy of the United Nations and the nations of the world.

Still others think of Israel as the ‘Start-Up Nation,’ with its technological prowess – be it in agriculture, water desalinization, medical research, innovation with weapons of war and defense, computer software development, environmental research, and food production.

Then there are a host of ‘inside Israel’ issues – the multitude of challenges surrounding Israel’s treatment of non-Orthodox Jews (us); the tension between the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population and secular Israelis; the inequities faced by Israel’s Arab minority living in a country with a Jewish majority; the political divide between the Mizrachi and Ashkenazi populations; as well as between the Right and what’s left of the Israel’s Left.

And of course, Israel has also become a wedge issue in American politics: Who is considered pro or anti-Israel? Are pro-Israel, conservative Christians, who oppose the separation of church and state our political allies, are they our foes, or are they something else? Is a person who is anti-Israel automatically Anti-Semitic – or is there a creeping continuum or a sliding scale?

Yes, to say the word: ‘Israel’ today, immediately conjures up a wide range of images and responses. It’s absurd, actually, that this tiny nation of less than 9 million people, in a land mass about the size of New Jersey, could provoke so many different issues and opinions, not only among us in this room, but across the country and the world.

Remarkably, despite the variety of topics I’ve listed (and the ones you think I omitted and should add) every one of these topics has one thing in common. Impossible, you say? What could all these disparate points of view have in common? They each relate to Israel as it exists in the real world.

And yet, for us as Jews, there are other dimensions of Israel beyond the political that we need to consider. There’s one, for instance, that we find in a Talmudic text. Now before I share that text, I want to mention that there are two versions of the Talmud, one that was compiled in Babylonia and the other in Palestine. The quote that I share comes, not from the Palestinian Talmud – but from the one assembled outside of Israel, in Babylonia. Here’s the text: “Ten measures of beauty were given to the world. Nine were taken by Jerusalem and one was distributed all over the earth” (Kiddushin 49b).

It’s a fascinating image, inspirational, even. And it’s equally clear that it could only have been written by someone who didn’t live in Jerusalem. Because no one who actually lives in a place, who knows both its palaces and its slums, who has seen its treasures and its trash pits, who had visited its magnificent temple as well as its stockyards, no one would claim that 90% of the world’s beauty was contained in their city. Only one who was nostalgic for a place from their childhood; or has heard stories passed down by generations of their family of its glory; only one who has longed and dreamed of it from afar can hold such a thought in their mind. For rather than a description of what is or was, this text from the Babylonian Talmud – that nine-tenths of the beauty of the world is stored in Jerusalem, is a romantic vision.

We find a similar perspective in a second set of terms: Yerushalayim L’malah and Yerushalyim L’matah – phrases which express the idea of two Jerusalems, one heavenly and the other here on earth. In this case, Yerushalayim L’matah refers to Jerusalem as it exists in the real world, in both its glory and shame, alongside Yerushalayim L’malah, the ideal Jerusalem of our memory, hopes, and dreams; the possibility of what it could look like if, instead of seeing the myriad of issues that confront it, its unrealized potential came to be.

Two images: L'malah – the idyllic land of the Torah and our prayerbook and some might say, of that memory that I shared from my childhood; and l’matah – the down and dirty, daily challenges we hear about on the radio and read in the press, which is the Israel we encounter most frequently. But for a few minutes I’d like us to consider a third image of Israel, one that’s equally real. Israel as the spiritual center of Jewish life in the world today.

Now perhaps a few of you are thinking ‘not interested;’ that those real-world issues I mentioned a few moments ago create a barrier between you and Israel. I ask you to reconsider. For I believe that it’s impossible to be a Jew in the world today and not have some form of a relationship with Israel. And here’s why:

To begin with, when Israel was founded in 1948, it’s population totaled 872,000 people, of which 716,000, 82% were Jews. This year Israel’s population totaled 9,500,000 of which over 7,000,000 were Jews, meaning that Israel is home to the largest Jewish population on earth, and its numbers continue to grow due immigration from communities that are threatened, and from a relatively high birth rate. Meanwhile Jewish populations outside of Israel have been more stagnant or are in decline. Thus, with the majority of Jews already living in Israel, and with a growth rate that’s larger than that of any other community, it is Israel that will define Judaism in the years to come.

Now you might object to this claim. After all, a large percentage of Israeli Jews call themselves ‘secular.’ And while this is true, it’s also true that Israel is the only country in the world whose national culture is Jewish. Israel follows the Jewish calendar, which means its schools are closed, not only for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but also for Sukkot, Simchat Torah and Passover. It means that holidays like Hanukkah, Purim, Tu B’shvat and Tu B’av are cultural celebrations; they’re not only celebrated in the synagogue and at home, they’re part of the fabric of daily life. There are festivities in the city squares, holiday symbols are used as part of store displays, and foods and ritual objects can be purchased in the supermarkets. Holidays are featured in newspaper and radio ads, and TV commercials. They’re part of daily life no different than Halloween and Valentine’s Day are here.

In Israel, Shabbat is not just an idea, it’s a greeting on the street that you’ll begin hearing on Friday morning from bus drivers, shopkeepers, police officers, waiters, and passersby – Shabbat Shalom they say. And it’s acknowledged at home with candles and kiddush, if not a family meal with challah, whether you went to temple on Friday night or Saturday morning, or not.

It's obvious that in Israel, Hebrew is a living language, which enables the Torah and Jewish texts to be accessible to all, and that studying the Torah is part of a child’s secular education. And that the locations mentioned in the Torah, they’re not hard to pronounce words, they’re places that they’ve actually visited.

It’s a place where Judaism not only lives, but where nearly every day, archeological digs connect us with our history and our ancestors. It’s a country where the term ‘diversity’ refers not only to the Jews, Arabs, Christians, and Druse who live in the land, but also to Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Mizrachim, Yemenite, and Ethiopian Jews; as well as the Russians and Ukrainians, who are able to live together in peace.

Israel is a place where Jewish values are lived; where old traditions are challenged and new practices develop, where Jewish texts influence the culture, not only for Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox and Haredi, but even for those who are secular. It’s a country where a book on Maimonides philosophic treatise, The Guide for the Perplexed, became a national best seller, and its author, Micah Goodman, became a cultural icon; a land whose most popular musicians have turned our liturgy, our Hebrew prayers into chart topping rock music. It’s a country where Judaism is healthy, vibrant, engaged, and not only relevant, but intertwined with the culture and the people, and plays a role in shaping the way they view the world around them, instead of having to fight for attention in a world of conflicting priorities.

This third vision of Israel is every bit as real, every bit as present as the one we read about in the papers, it’s just not as newsworthy. And by allowing our attention to be focused only on Yisrael l’matah, the real-world Israel, we lose sight of the ways that Judaism is continuing to adapt, grow and change in today’s world. And my fear is, that if we’re not careful, then the relationship that binds us together with the majority of the Jewish people, the Judaism we practice or, far too often observe from the sidelines, it will begin to fray.

This morning, as we gather on this day of self-reflection, I want to call on us to commit to building a stronger connection with this third aspect of Israel.

Now I want to be honest and recognize that despite the very real challenges we’re experiencing in America today – our real-world America ‘L’matah,’ this country has also provided us with tremendous blessings. For over 2,000 years, no Jewish community has been as blessed as we are today. Blessed to live in a country where we play an active role in its political life. Blessed to live in a wealthy land. Blessed to live in a moment in time when the gifts of the human mind have created countless miracles. Blessed to be integrated into our society, enabling us to participate fully in all aspects of communal life.

And yet, these blessings are so manifold and abundant, American culture is so open and welcoming that we’ve hardly noticed that we’ve surrendered a great deal of our unique identity, heritage, and tradition to it, which threatens our relationship with the Jewish center that after 2,000 years is re-emerging in the land of Israel.

So, here’s what I’m asking of us, as both individuals and as a community. As individuals:

That we remember that the center of Jewish life tomorrow will not be shaped by us. It will be determined by our people in Israel. And the best way, perhaps the only way for us and our children to be a part of that future is by building or maintaining a relationship with our family there. I’m asking that we begin to reclaim the joy, the beauty, the values, and the blessings of our heritage. That we carve out time to make Shabbat with our family each week. That we bring Jewish culture into our homes. That we give and do tzedakah, not charity, but tzedakah, supporting causes that bring more Tzedek - Justice into the world. That we become more familiar with Jewish books and with Hebrew – the living language of our people spoken by Jews, not only in Israel, but all over the world. That we put a trip to Israel on our shortlist – or if it’s there already, then book it. That we seize the moment and when an opportunity comes to participate in a once in a generation event, like helping to complete a Torah, that we grasp hold of it.

And as a community, I’m asking you, I’m inviting you, once a month, to join with our congregation at a joyful Shabbat gathering, a time of music and song, of food and good cheer; a time to greet one another and build new relationships – it could be business relationships – it could even be a friendship.

Let’s join together and work on a cause you care about, but haven’t yet made the time for. Let’s make a difference in our community, our country, our world and fulfill the promise that God made to Abraham and Sarah – that all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through their descendants, through us.

And finally, let us strive to emulate the example of our people in Israel, whose religious life is integrated into their daily life and commit to celebrating the joy of our heritage, and bringing light into the world.

In this year, 5783, may we see visions of L’malah – of the sacred gifts that Judaism can be to our lives, and bring them to fruition through the work of our hands and the commitment of our hearts.

Kain Y’hee Ratzon – May this be God’s will. Amen.

Wed, February 1 2023 10 Sh'vat 5783