What I Hope to Hear at High Holy Day Services
It’s often said the High Holy Days come either too late or too early, but never on time.
This year, they couldn’t be better timed.
With all that’s going on now in the Jewish world, there’s an extraordinary opportunity to reach a vast audience during the solemn ten days we know as the Yamim Noraim, or Days of Awe.
Two immediate messages need to be shared from the bima.
First, anti-Semitism is on the rise. Newsweek magazine devoted a cover story to a young Belgian Jewish woman carrying a suitcase, with the chilling title, “Exodus: Why Europe’s Jews are fleeing once again.”
The Wall Street Journal has published at least three recent major op-eds on rising anti-Semitism.
And three European leaders – the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Italy – issued an unusual joint appeal against the surge in anti-Semitism.
We cannot remain indifferent or complacent.
We Jews are a people. We share a destiny. We have a collective responsibility to one another.
Consider some recent occurrences:
Thousands of demonstrators marched through the streets of Paris, Berlin, and other European cities, many chanting: “Death to the Jews,” “Hitler was right,” “Jews to the gas chambers,” and “Reopen Auschwitz.”
A demonstration in Sweden against anti-Semitism had to be canceled because the organizers were physically afraid.
And let’s not forget the Paris synagogue that was targeted by a raging mob, while worshipers were inside. They were saved by the courage of security personnel, until the French police could arrive in larger numbers. It’s important to emphasize that for those threatening from the outside, it didn’t matter a whit what denomination the synagogue was, only that it was a Jewish site and there were Jews inside.
Sadly, this is far from a complete list of what’s been going on, primarily in Europe, but elsewhere as well, from South Africa to New Zealand, from South America to Australia.
Second, this is a time to reaffirm our enduring bonds with Israel.
Once again, we find so many who are either unwilling or incapable of understanding Israel’s profound security challenges.
Too often, wherever we look – in the media, diplomatic corridors, and elsewhere – we see distortion of reality, political expediency, and moral inversion.
Israel left Gaza in 2005, giving local residents their first chance in history to chart their own destiny. Tragically, in elections, they chose Hamas, which, consistent with its blood-curdling charter, opted to pursue Israel’s destruction rather than Gaza’s construction.
How is Israel supposed to react, when missiles are being fired indiscriminately at millions of its citizens? What would any other country do in Israel’s place?
And what is Israel to do when it discovers more than 30 infiltration tunnels built from Gaza into its territory with the aim of sending jihadists to kill and kidnap as many Israelis as possible? Again, what would any other country do in Israel’s place?
Israel is fighting a ruthless, cynical foe, who uses civilians, especially women and children, as human shields, hoping to drive up the casualty count and draw the world’s sympathy and support.
And how else could Israel act in defending itself against an adversary that chooses schools, mosques, UN facilities, and hospitals to hide terrorists, store weapons, and fire missiles, while counting on the international community to express horror if any of these structures are hit by Israeli strikes?
How could so many fail to see the moral clarity of Israel’s struggle?
How could they fail to grasp that Israel is on the front line in the battle against jihadist forces, and that all of us – Western nations, as well as moderate Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE – have a stake in Israel’s success?
And how could they not understand that Hamas is part of the same family tree as ISIS, Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda, and Boko Haram – groups that despise America, target Christians, Yazidis, Baha’i, and Muslims of other outlooks, and want to impose shari’a law wherever possible?
We need to remember and thank those that have stood by Israel, including the U.S., Canada, and Australia.
And we need to remember, as well, those that have assailed Israel—notably Turkey and, among others, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Peru, Uruguay, and, of course, Venezuela. Think twice before you make your next overseas vacation plans or business decisions.
But most of all, we need to tell Israelis that they are not alone, that we stand with them shoulder-to-shoulder, that we admire their courage, and that, individually and collectively, we will advocate their cause in the halls of power here and around the world.
Israel is a remarkable country in a thousand different ways. How fortunate we are to be able to say “This year in Jerusalem,” when, for countless generations, it was always the yearning for “Next year in Jerusalem”!
But for all its astonishing progress, Israel remains embattled, surrounded by Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, and ISIS. And let’s not forget Iran, which, like Iraq in 1991, is just a missile away.
Today, Israel faces challenges on three fronts.
First, the military front, where, time and again, the IDF has acted heroically.
Second, the civilian front. Israel’s enemies have sought to hit cities and towns, only to be met by resilience and determination.
And third, the global front, where Israel’s opponents have tried to penetrate the media, universities, unions, politicians, civic groups, the courts, etc., seeking Israel’s isolation.
That third front is also our front.
Accordingly, in the spirit of our tradition, this is a time for each of us to say “Hineini!” “Here I am!” It’s a time for all of us to say together, “Hineinu!” “Here we are”
It’s a defining time. In life, we don’t usually get to choose our moments. But the moment is here.
Do we respond to it? Do we show that we’ve learned the lessons of history, that we understand the core Jewish principle of collective responsibility?
Do we identify with our Jewish sisters and brothers around the world, who today face a new level of danger and fear? Do we call on world leaders not only to denounce anti-Semitism, but also to take sustained action against it?
Do we stand with Israel, affirming our pride, solidarity, and support?
Or do we let the moment pass, using such excuses as it’s not the right time in our lives, or the issues don’t touch us directly, or we don’t know what’s going on, or maybe if we’re just a bit nicer everyone will like us more, or everything will somehow turn out alright of its own accord?
We are a people who for thousands of years have yearned for one thing above all, shalom, peace.
We are all meant to be rodphei shalom, pursuers of peace.
We must never abandon that quest, that belief in its possibility.
Yet, at the same time, we cannot become so mesmerized by it that we lose all perspective on life as it actually is today.
Perhaps our situation is best summed up in the following anecdote:
Sherlock Holmes, joined by his trusty aide Watson, left London by horse-drawn wagon for a case in the north. Darkness arrived, so they pitched a tent along the way. In the middle of the night, Holmes woke up, looked around, and elbowed Watson.
“Watson, my dear chap, what do you see?”
Watson rubbed his eyes before saying: “Why Holmes, I see the beauty of the stars, the transcendence of the universe, and the majesty of eternity.”
To which Holmes replied: “Watson, you fool, someone has stolen our tent!”
We must never lose sight of the beauty of the stars.
But we must also never forget, as we gather in sacred communities for these Days of Awe, that someone is trying to steal our tent.
If we, each of us – indeed, all of us – don’t protect the tent, who will?