This past summer a story was circulating around the efforts to get Hamas and the Israelis to negotiate. At one end of the table is the head of Hamas, Khaled Mashal at the other end id the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. In the middle is a negotiator.
Hamas says, ”Death to all Jews."
The mediator turns to Netanyahu and says, “Can’t you at least meet them half way?”
So why are we here? And I don’t mean why you and I are here on the Earth.
This is the question of why you went through the effort to buy your shul tickets, got dressed, fight your way through the traffic, the parking and into the shul this morning. And add on more thing to the list – a fear spoken to me by a number of people of the shul being a terror target on the very days when it is known that Jews are here in large numbers.
I have no doubt there are safer, easier labels you can find for yourself and your children. Perhaps in the last 70 years there hasn’t been a more precarious time for Jews in Israel and everywhere. And yet, we are here.
So why be here and why be Jewish? Well, you’ll be happy to know I went looking for answers this summer.
In July Lisa and I visited Rome, and Rome is one of the most ancient Jewish settlements outside of Israel. The presence of Jews in Rome reaches back more than 2000 years ago; it was the place many Jews fled to when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman emperor Vespasian.
From the year 70 to this day Jews continue to live in Rome, and their historical centre is an area called Trastevere – literally, trans - across - the Tevere, the Tiber - which is the river that cuts through the heart of Rome.
This area of Rome has been through time a cemetery and a garbage dump and also a ghetto to the Jews. Over the centuries life in Rome had been good and bad to the Jews. There were Popes who looked kindly on them, and there were Popes who wanted nothing to do with them, and there were Popes like Pope Pius XII who wanted them dead.
This Pope Pius stood and cried over the bombed ruins of a church, but stood by and watched the Nazis carry the Jews of Rome away.
An earlier Pope Pius, the 5th one, had a different idea of what to do with the Jews. Inside Rome’s ghetto he built a church and decreed that the Jews attend every Sunday to hear the sermon. And to this day on the mantel above the Church’s doorway is an inscription from the Torah written in Latin and Hebrew that calls on the rebellious Jews to repent and convert.
So the Jews went to church on Sundays. Otherwise, the consequences were too great. But before going inside they poured wax into their ears. So there they were sitting in the pews, the Priest is preaching but they are there only in body - the words never get inside.
So that was Rome, but before Rome I was in Tel Aviv. And it was there, on a beautiful summer evening that I sat by the ocean, in the old Tel Aviv port.
I looked to my left and it was there that in 1932 the very first of the Jewish Olympic Games, the Maccabia, was held. Within weeks of its announcement a sports stadium was built that housed thousands of athletes from 25 countries. To the south of me in 1934 Tel Aviv’s first international exhibition, the Levant Fair, was held. Within 8 months of announcing the fair a compound was built housing representatives of 36 countries and 2200 companies. By the end of the year over 600,000 people had come to the grounds and the exhibition.
Just a bit west from where I sat only 2 years later in 1936 they announced the construction of Tel Aviv’s first major power plant. It was completed in 9 months, at the same time Israel’s first airport was built nearby and in that same year Tel Aviv’s port, the first Hebrew port built in this country in over 2000 years was commissioned.
Within weeks the port’s customs house was built, a wooden pier was opened and thousands of people gathered to watch the first cement shipment arrive and sang the Hatikvah as they carried it ashore. But by the end of the month the wooden pier was hit by a storm and it washed out to sea.
So a week later it was rebuilt of steel and iron - and there it stands to this very day.
These stories are personal but not because any of them happened to me. They’re personal because these stories are about you, and me. They are not only about a port, or some church in Rome - so don’t get lost in the details of where and when – the stories are actually about the very same thing.
Because when we think of Jews and life we know that sometimes we can resist and keep what we have – all it might take is some wax in our ears, and sometimes what we have is washed away. So we build again.
But we never walk away.
Walking away isn’t part of our story. No matter how great the horror there is an ancient voice whispering us to come back, to get closer, to believe Yiyeh Tov, it will be good.
But these stories tell us something more – why were Jews in Rome and in Tel Aviv to begin with? Why 2000 years ago did the Jews run to Europe when they could have settled anywhere else in the world? Why 80 years ago did Jews settle 10 kilometers north of Jaffa to start a city on a sandy scratch of beach? What is it that made them think that there of all places in the world they could imagine a new home where they could flourish?
And it is in this, here, that we uncover the real story of our story. The truth about us is not just a simple record of 2000 years of history between Rome and Tel Aviv. The deeper truth about us is that there would and could be no us without that Church in Rome and the Pier in Tel Aviv.
Because the Jewish people would not be if we had settled in a place where there was freedom, and safety. The heartbeat of our story would have died out long ago if we have been taken in with hospitality and kindness. Because much of this story is borne, like so much of our own stories, not by the good and happy things we tell about ourselves. But in the hard times, in the pain we face and overcome, within the losses we suffer and survive that create the people that we are.
The story of the Jewish people warns us if we have spent our whole lives going over things, and never going through them we will never touch and discover what we actually could be.
In other words, no one has ever sat me down and said to me, rabbi, let me tell you all of the good things I was given in my life. No, people share their tragedies, and how they overcame them. We revel in how we faced pain, and lived to tell the tale.
You see Jews had Jerusalem when Ottawa, Paris, London and New York were marshes. And in so many ways Canada has what our people seldom has had – serenity and quiet. Wars pose no danger to how people live their life here.
But us - we - have lived on the edge of a fire. I think it is why we are creative and vital, I think it is why we persist.
From the destruction of the first Temple, to the collapse of the second. To the dispersion of Jews north, south, east and west. Through the horrific pogroms of the first crusades that left one in every 3 Jews dead in Europe. From the Spanish Inquisition to the industry and electric spiritual power of Jewish communities wherever they were given time and space to grow, from the great minds of RaShi, Maimonidies, Freud, Fromm, and Einstein to the Kishinev pogroms and the Shoah. With its pain and joy this is the kind of world that created us.
And if you look back, and I mean really back, the story of this story is found at the very moment when we came into being. It is so well known that most of us, myself included, I think miss the point of it, or at least the most important detail of it.
Moses leaves Egypt as soon as the Pharaoh discovers that he is planning to rebel with the Jews. From there he heads north through the Sinai desert and arrives in Moav. Once there good luck shines on him - Moses is adopted by the head of the Moabites, who then gives his daughter to Moses as a wife. Safe, with wife and family he settles nicely into a life of peace and quiet, he has children, has the business of a shepherd to tend the flocks during the day and comes home at night for dinner and to watch the news.
But one sunny day on the side of a mountain with his sheep it all comes to an end. It is there – at that moment – that the secret is revealed. Moses walks up the mountain and there he sees:
וַיַּ֗רְא וְהִנֵּ֤ה הַסְּנֶה֙ בֹּעֵ֣ר בָּאֵ֔שׁ וְהַסְּנֶ֖ה אֵינֶ֥נּוּ אֻכָּֽל׃
“…there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. Moses said, “…why doesn’t the bush burn up?”
This burning bush that is never consumed, that no fire can lay waste, a bush that can withstand the heat of a flame, and not only is never consumed but never stops burning is seen to represent G-d.
It tells us that the laws of the physical world do not apply to the creator of this world. That we are subject to them, but G-d is not. To the eyes of a man who was to be sent on a mission to do the impossible it was a meaningful way of telling Moses that the usual rules of life and success will not apply to him because the ruler of all things is with him.
And that is the usual teaching of this burning bush, but elsewhere we discover a different twist to this burning bush. In this place we discover that perhaps it is not G-d who was in this indestructible bush. Perhaps the fire that could never consume the thickets isn’t G-d - it is us.
That G-d showed the sineh she-ainaino ookal – this inconsumable burning bush – to give Moshe the faith that no matter how bleak the situation might be, no matter how dire the circumstances we - like it - will not be consumed.
And there I was in the Old Tel Aviv port watching the old people and the young people, children with parents, friends with friends, lovers holding hands and it all seemed just so miraculous to me. That only 2 generations ago the entire Jewish world stood at the edge of the fire and here we are prosperous, growing, engaged and meaningful in a world that forever seems lethal and dangerous, a world forever titled against us..
But there again appears the Burning Bush and I tell myself that this is what we come from – there may always be fire licking at our roots – but it is a most brilliant light.
The Greeks wrote their stories about gods, but the ancient Jews wrote their stories about people. The Greeks wrote their drama about people suffering and choosing death, but the Jews almost always write stories about people who claw and scratch their way to life. At all costs, life. About people who give everything to bring children into the world, because having children is really about having faith.
And there at the port you see children everywhere. Israeli families, even the irreligious ones, have big families. And any sane person would ask why - 20 kilometers south, 20 kilometers east, 100 kilometers north are hundreds of millions of people who want to obliterate them - but no matter.
We know no other way.
In the town of Tarnow, a small quaint village in southern Poland you will see miles of green fields, villas and farms. It was there in June 1942 that German military transports were brought into the centre of the towns square. It was the middle of the day, and the Jewish schools were emptied out and the children were loaded onto the lorries.
I wonder what people thought – seeing 800 children loaded onto military transports. We know enough to know that no one interfered, and no one was saved.
The trucks drove 7 kilometers outside the town to a forest. The children were taken off the trucks, and lined up in front of the pits. The Germans cut them all down in gunfire. It took the whole day to get through all 800. I wonder the hell of those who had to wait lived through.
That forest is known as Ya’ar Hayeladim – the Children’s Forest. There are 3 marked memorial sites where each of the 3 massive pits where the children were gunned down and buried. It is a pilgrimage that Jewish children make throughout the world to; but in particular Israeli children. The sites of the graves are covered with letters and poems in Hebrew, with Israeli flags, children’s toys and flowers.
And on the day that I went I found a small rock, painted in white and blue, with 3 Hebrew words on it – Gaeh Leeh-yot Yehudi – be proud to be Jewish.
Pride: tragedy doesn’t break us, it inspires us. Pain doesn’t weaken, but strengthens us. And this – this is our story. And our question for this morning – which is the question we are asked every year – is how much do each of us live in this story?
Because it’s not enough to love it, or defend it. No, you have to live a life that makes sense of it.
And that’s why you, and me, why we are here this morning. It is why this community exists, it is why we have this building, these walls and seats. Our job is the sacred job of inspiring us all to live inside this remarkable story – perhaps the greatest of all human history. And I promise you we will not cease from seeking new ways to speak old truths – for us, our children and beyond. Join us, support us this year as we take the pen and write the next chapter.
Am Yisrael Chai.