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Can There Be a Do-Over (Parashat Behar)

06/01/2024 12:47:28 PM


Rabbi Shoshanah



Sermon for May 24, 2024 - Shabbat Behar
Rabbi Shoshanah Tornberg

I just returned a few weeks ago from a powerful and meaningful trip to Israel and Palestine. Travel often involves seeing the sights. As tourists--even mission-oriented tourists--we look at a foreign place we visit as a chance to take in the meaning of a place. And, so, we start with the obvious:
  • This wall from the Ottoman period,
  • that archaeological site that we think relates to the kingship of David,
  • the beach in Tel Aviv,
  • the Bahai Gardens in Haifa,
  • the Kotel in Jerusalem (Western retaining wall of the ancient Temple)
  • the plodding steps up to the top of Masada, and more.

But, I have always felt a strange otherness to my touring. It often feels like pretending at living.

How do you really get a sense of the meaning of a place and the lives of the people living there? How do you find this meaning without turning the lives of other people and peoples into a reflective story about yourself? In other words, how do we prevent ourselves from failing to truly see another?

The people who live in the places one tours likely do not spend their days at tourist destinations. They instead draw meaning from the 
  • water, 
  • air, 
  • bureaucracy, 
  • housing conditions, 
  • army service duties, 
  • relationships, 
  • livelihoods, 
  • volunteer work, 
  • spiritual opportunities, 
  • political convictions, 
  • sense of well-being, 
  • whether the kindergarten is walking distance, 
  • how to pay the next bill, and 
  • where can the kids swim.

Without immediate family in the land of Israel it is hard for me to enter into this place. But, for the first time since I traveled anywhere that was not home, I felt,  on this trip, closer to the meaning of the land and its people. Israel is about so many things. But, most of all, it is a land that is not just a story about itself. It is a land that is about its people. The people who lived there. And the people who live there. Now.

Now is hard.

I could have travelled to see the sights and talk with a few volunteers. I could have worked on a kibbutz in need of more labor or assisted getting meals to soldiers. And these ways of encounter would have been true. And they would have had merit.

But, the planners of my trip did something remarkable: They gave us the chance to see the people of the land. All of its people. Of course, we learned from Israelis first-hand about the terror and psychological toll the Oct. 7 attack and the subsequent war is taking on Israeli minds and hearts. But there was more: It was a remarkable moment in my Jewish education, because we began to talk about and with Palestinians. We did not shy from drawing attention to the experiences on the other side of the borders. This is real. And this is part of the story of Eretz Yisrael. And if we are to tell a whole, honest, morally forthright story, we have to tell of this, too.

If Israel is to find wholeness and a functioning democracy, it must stop being an occupying force. This role is eating at the core of what it means to be a Jew today. Just ask Yehudah Shaul, the founder of Breaking the Silence and the over 1000 soldiers who have joined him in speaking out against the immorality of the occupation from the perspective of their IDF service in the West Bank. There are many voices in Israel rising against the tide of an old way of seeing things. And they are up against mighty foes.

I was horrified upon my return to the United States to learn of the far right-wing settlers who enacted operations to intercept the life-saving food that humanitarian aid groups were trying to deliver to residents of Gaza. With humanitarian aid being limited from entering the Strip, Palestinians starving was and is becoming more severe. Far-right Israeli settlers began attacking aid convoys destined for Gaza, while Israeli police officers stood on the side watching the extreme settler violence unfold. These were the same kinds of trucks I saw outside our bus when we were in the Gaza envelope–the area of Israeli towns and communities close to the Gaza border. The food was waiting.

I was also proud to see Jews begin to stand up against this corrupt and destructive sense of patriotism. “Standing Together” is an organization that works for peace and independence for Israelis and Palestinians, full equality for all citizens, and true social, economic, and environmental justice. On May 15 they launched the Humanitarian Guard: They called on citizens of Israel, both Jews and Palestinians, to stop this act of terrorism from happening, to defend humanity, and to bring an end to this extreme government. Their plans were to escort the aid convoys and ensure they reach their destination and to raise awareness about this catastrophe happening before our eyes. 

This week in the Torah, we learn of the parameters that our ancient law code put in place to maintain social and economic justice. The text of Behar tells us the laws about Shmita and Yovel–the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. The practice of the Sabbatical year teaches us to let the land we are farming lie fallow every seven years. This helps the land rejuvenate, and it reminds us that we do not own the land, but are merely borrowing its use from God.

Once seven sets of seven years pass, we celebrate the Jubilee (Yovel)–at least we did in ancient times. This is the part of the Torah where we get the phrase, “You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants.”--That is, “proclaim liberty…”
This phrase’s origin in the Torah refers to the release of slaves who were forced to sell their labor into servitude. It refers to the forgiveness of debts, and the reversion of land back to its original owners.t

It is a way that the Torah tries to codify a huge, social and economic do-over. 

On the heels of my trip, it is hard to think about this vision of a do-over as we face such sorrow, suffering, and horror, in, of all places, this land.

Who owns the land? Who owned the land? 
Who should own the land? Who has suffered? Who has been a perpetrator of hatred and violence? Who has faced injustice?

These are no longer the questions that plague me. What plagues me is the question of who we are becoming. It makes me ask, who do we want to be?

One of the inspiring leaders with whom I met, Maoz Inon, shared the words of Elana Kaminka, an Israeli mother who lost her son on Oct. 7. She shares her wisdom from this harrowing time, “The more quickly and effectively we learn to live together, the greater the chance for our children to see a better future in this country.”

We want to be a people who value our past; we may even venerate it. Jews care about memory. But this moment calls us to do more: we must also envision and build for a future. We must find a way for us all to begin again.
Mon, June 24 2024 18 Sivan 5784