Welcoming the Israel National Defense College

Shabbat Shalom. What a pleasure to welcome back the elite soldiers of the Israel National Defense College under the command of major general Etai, welcome to us. *applause* It is a great joy to see
you again. *applause* I want you to know that our guests are the very best of Israel. Born to lead, trained to command, and willing and
able to shoulder the yoke of defending the Jewish State. They are among a select group who place themselves on the front lines for the sake of liberty, dignity, and security. They were hand-picked by the chief of
staff of the IDF to participate in this year-long training away from their field commands. They have the time and the space to think and to study anything and everything that
might be relevant for their leadership roles including learning more about American Jewry and American society which is what brings them to us this Shabbat. ברוכים הבאים. Welcome You are among family here. After Kabbalat Shabbat,
we look forward to breaking bread together. הִנֵּה מַה טוֹב וּמַה נָּעִים שֶׁבֶת אָחִים גַּם יַחַד How good it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together You will be welcomed downstairs by the president of our synagogue, Marc Bernstein. For the
record, we elected our leader in one vote. We didn’t have to go back to the members of the congregation three months later for another vote. I’m just saying… I want our guests, and to remind our congregants: this synagogue is
not neutral on Israel. That’s not our job. Let others – cerebral scholars, diligent
diplomats, polished professors -let them be neutral. Here we are passionate partisans. We are not uncritical an uncritical Jew
is a contradiction in terms: there never was a creature and there never will be. The members of this congregation differ on the day-to-day policies and policies of the Israeli government. But then again, they also differ on the day-to-day policies of the American government. And, truth be told, they differ on the synagogue’s daily decisions as well. I know because they tell me. We are a highly contentious people. We’ve always been this way. We like ourselves this way. We have many unresolved problems in the
Jewish world – of high moral, political and religious consequence. But as much as we argue with each other, as much as we lose patience one with the other, this synagogue will always stand by Israel’s side, no matter what! *applause* We will never abandon Israel or give aid and comfort to Israel’s enemies. We are bound to each other – not uncritically,
but unconditionally. כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה All Jews are responsible one for the other. The fate of one Jew is the fate of all Jews whether we live in Brussels, Budapest, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Barcelona, Bordeaux,
or Beersheba. We feel the same insecurity – the same loss and pain of Jews attacked
in Paris, Pittsburgh, or Poway – as we do when our brothers and sisters run to bomb
shelters in Petach Tikvah or Pri Gan near the Gaza border. There is a concept in Judaism called, “הכרת
הטוב,” recognizing the good. It is good and proper from time to time to note how far
we have come – and to give thanks for our blessings. It is good and proper from time
to time to cease the incessant arguing – and to acknowledge the good. A hundred generations have passed since the
destruction of the Jerusalem Temple – and almost all of them considered the restoration
of Jewish sovereignty to be a distant dream. It was so inconceivable that even 1,827 years
later, when Theodor Herzl announced the birth of the Zionist movement, most Jews considered
that announcement ipso facto proof that Herzl was a madman. Look at us now. The Jewish state is on the cutting and leading
edge of so many human endeavors: Technology, bio-technology, medicine, science,
agriculture, water desalinization and recycling, computer hardware and especially software,
security systems, art, theater, television, movies, music, law, literature, fashion, wineries
and other culinary delights. I remember the days that even to ask, “Where can I get good food?” was to label you an
unserious person in Israel. Remember those days on El Al flights when the flight attendant
would ask, “Do you want dinner?” The passenger would respond, “What are my choices?”
And the attendant would say: “Yes or no!” Today tourists flock to Israel just to eat for a week at Israeli restaurants. Cooking
is a macho thing now. If you can’t whip up some amazing Shabbat lunch for 20 friends,
you are somehow unmanly. Israel’s population is 10 times what it
was on the day of its birth in May 1948. Its economy is many times larger than that – among
the top 20 economies in the world. Israeli universities are world class, churning out
leading inventors, scientists, doctors, philosophers, authors, engineers, and academics.
You might hear a lot about people boycotting Israel – it seems to get disproportionate
attention, including from us – but more tourists are flocking to Israel than ever
before. The country’s tourism infrastructure strains to keep pace. And all this with one hand tied behind Israel’s
back: spending inordinately disproportionate amounts of national treasure on security,
withstanding and enduring the searing pain of human loss. Twenty-five thousand Israelis
have laid down their lives on the altar of freedom. Israel now is much more secure – itself
an enormous accomplishment. And this greater sense of well-being allows Israelis to gaze
more comprehensively at the world outside of Israel. Today Israelis are often among
the first on the scene of natural or human-made disasters. They often provide the best of
all first aid. We have met some of these first responders on our Israel missions. They have
also visited our synagogue. Babies in disaster zones are named “Israel” in gratitude
to Israeli doctors who delivered them. This Jewish humanitarian impulse extends even to Israel’s enemies. The Israel Defense
Forces established a field hospital on the Syrian border. On our Israel missions we met
the IDF officers who set it up and the Israeli doctors who treated the suffering. Thousands
of wounded civilians – who were taught from childhood to hate Jews – including many
hundreds of Syrian children have been restored to health by Israeli doctors. They described
to us how disoriented some patients were to wake up in an Israeli hospital, treated – at
no cost to them – by the best doctors in the world – who they thought were their
sworn enemies. And all this progress is just beginning. Imagine what Israel will accomplish by the end of
the 21st century. Do you know that 88% of Israelis – practically everyone – claim to be satisfied with their
lives? With all the problems, Israelis are among the happiest people in the world. It
turns out that happiness – our existential satisfaction – is not only, or even primarily,
a function of economic prosperity or professional success. It is also about purpose, motivation,
collective effort, history, opportunity – a sense of destiny.
This is Israel’s most important accomplishment. Israel has restored the national spirit of
the Jewish people – and has given hope to all persecuted peoples that they, too, can
survive and thrive. It is not only that Israel is a place of refuge for millions of persecuted Jews. If it was
only that – דַּיֵּנוּ – that would have been enough. If all that
Israel did was to provide a home for what is probably now the majority of the world’s
Jews – דַּיֵּנוּ – that, too, would have been enough. But Israel is much more: Israel is one of
the great wonders of the world – the engine for the recreation and restoration of the
national home and the national spirit of the Jewish people. Israel testifies to the Jewish
people’s indomitable will to survive. Israel is a testament of hope over despair. Its very
existence says to the world that if the Jews can do it, after all that we have endured,
other peoples can also dare to hope. This is the reason that Israel’s creation carries such universal significance. It is
a triumph of the human spirit. Zionism inspired a whole people to awaken from its national
passivity and to seize its own destiny. As such, Israel says to all persecuted, oppressed,
demoralized people: “You can do it! Lift up the banner of freedom and restore yourself.” The return of the Jews to Zion is a miracle
of biblical proportions, the likes of which have not been seen in the whole history of
civilization. Our people has raised Zion from desolation and made it live again. עֵת הַזָּמִיר הִגִּיעַ
וְקוֹל הַתּוֹר נִשְׁמַע בְּאַרְצֵנוּ.
The time for singing has come – and the song of the turtledove is heard throughout
the land. הַתְּאֵנָה חָנְטָה פַגֶּיהָ וְהַגְּפָנִים סְמָדַר
נָתְנוּ רֵיחַ The green figs weigh heavy on the fig trees;
the vines in blossom give off fragrance. וְהִטִּיפוּ הֶהָרִים עָסִיס וְכָל-הַגְּבָעוֹת תִּתְמוֹגַגְנָה.
The mountains drip wine and the hills wave with grain. This week’s parasha – בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ –
describes the Israelites’ finally leaving the foothills of Mount Sinai. After 13 months
and 20 days, Moses assembled the people for the march to the Promised Land. One can imagine
the electric excitement. The Midrash explains that the people had spent so much time absorbing the laws and commandments
of Sinai that they marched for three days nonstop – to avoid God’s calling them
back for yet more laws and responsibilities. Like schoolchildren, say the rabbis, who at
the end of the day run from school without stopping so that the headmaster does not call
them back for more studies. Moses organized the camp tribe by tribe. And
– as if this parasha was intended for this precise week when our guests from the Israel
National Defense College are with us – the Torah emphasizes that each tribe was headed
by its military commander. וַיִּסַּע דֶּגֶל מַחֲנֵה בְנֵי יְהוּדָה בָּרִאשֹׁנָה
לְצִבְאֹתָם וְעַל צְבָאוֹ נַחְשׁוֹן בֶּן עַמִּינָדָב.
At the head marched the tribe of Judah – in command of its troops was Nachshon ben Amminadav; ועל-צבא–מטה, בני זבולון:
אליאב, בן-חילון And in command of the tribe of Zevulun – Eliav ben Helon
And thus, tribe by tribe, the names of these commanders are forever enshrined in the annals
of Jewish civilization. There can be no national existence without men and women devoted to
protecting the people. There can be no self-determination without an army filled with determined selves. But here’s the thing about the Jews: At
the center of this march – protected by these legendary commanders – was the Menorah.
The parasha’s opening passage states: אֶת הַנֵּרֹת אֶל מוּל פְּנֵי הַמְּנוֹרָה יָאִירוּ שִׁבְעַת
הַנֵּרוֹת. And God said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give
light at the front of the Menorah.’” The purpose of this march to the Promised Land – the whole point of Jewish existence
– is to give light, אור לגויים, to be a light to all the nations of the world:
To be a blessing. וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה. We need an army, but our purpose is הגנה, self-defense
– not violence for its own sake, or subjugation or national ego. The menorah was symbolic
of our ambition to create a more peaceful world – a world filled with light. Ultimately, the menorah became the symbol
of Jewish sovereignty. The symbol of the modern state of Israel is the Temple Menorah. It
was a magnificent creation, made of זהב טהור – pure gold. Scholars tell us that pure gold is the highest
grade, having undergone extra steps in the refining process to free it from any impurity.
Pure gold symbolizes the Jewish dream of refinement and purity: a refinement of the body of Jews
so that together we may aspire towards the purity of God’s words.
When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70 CE they carried the menorah back to
Rome. It was their way of pronouncing the end of Jewish sovereignty. The Jews would
soon disappear from the pages of history like all the other nations that the Romans subjugated
and defeated. The Romans were convinced of that. Titus was the Roman general who finally conquered
Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. To honor Titus a special arch was built in his honor.
It is now called “the Arch of Titus.” You can still walk through it if you cross
the street from the coliseum and proceed for several hundred meters through the forum. On the bottom corner of the Arch of Titus
is a frieze depicting Roman soldiers carrying the menorah from the Temple. The next time
you are in Rome, bear in mind that the history of our people figures prominently in Roman
lore. The last known resting place of the Temple Menorah was Rome. In the year 71, the Emperor, Vespasian, arranged
a victory march in Rome to honor his son, Titus, and to parade in front of the Roman
people the spoils of war. There is a surviving eyewitness account of this parade. Josephus,
the former Jewish commander who became the chronicler of the Jewish War, witnessed the
parade firsthand and described its grandeur and in detail. It’s magnificent. Towards the end of his account Josephus writes: “Most of the spoils that were carried were
heaped up indiscriminately, but more prominent than all the rest were those captured in the
Temple in Jerusalem: A golden table weighing several hundred weight, and a menorah similarly made of gold.” The menorah – the very symbol of Jewish independence and self-determination – was
in bondage at its holding site, what the Romans perversely called “The Temple of Peace.” This Temple of Peace was funded through the plunder of war brought back from the war on the Jews. One wall of that Temple still stands. That was it: the end of the line for this
people. It was good while it lasted – but nothing lasts forever. The kingdom survived for a thousand years from King Saul to Shimon bar Giora one of the three main
commanders of Jerusalem, who, according to Josephus was shackled and dragged in front
of the Roman crowds and executed to the delirious delight of the masses. But something astonishing and unprecedented
occurred. The Roman Empire that was destined to rule forever crumbled into dust and rubble. The Jewish people live on. The Menorah has been rekindled. It burns תמיד, eternally
– protected now by the men and women with us here this Shabbat the present-day soldiers
of the state of Israel. It is the Romans who are no more. If only Vespasian, if only Titus, could see the eternal
flame the people they could not destroy, back in the Land of Zion and Jerusalem. Striving to be a light to the nations; to do what is just and right in the sight of G-d. May the menorah burn with eternal light and may the flame of our people never go out.