I am an unabashed Zionist. I love the State of Israel. I love its people, its multiculturalism, its place at the center of the Jewish world. I love the values that drive so many Israelis, who face constant existential threats, to pour their energy into education, research, arts and culture and into providing aid all around the world in times of need. I love the sacred history that connects us to our ancient homeland, and I love the hope symbolized by the State of Israel as a safe haven for Jews in an increasingly dangerous world.
So it breaks my heart to see the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis continue and intensify, and to see the loss, suffering and pain of both peoples.
I pray for peace, and I hope you do as well: peace for both Israelis and Palestinians. I pray for a peace that will allow us to live next to each other, with mutual respect and security, prospering together as neighbors, embracing not only our similarities but our differences, and reflecting the image of the Divine to each other. I offer my prayer as an expression of hope and faith - even as I worry that we are farther than ever from achieving that peace
The latest round of violence started because of tensions over the status of the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sarif. The Temple Mount (as it is called by Jews) is the single holiest site in the world for Jews because it is the place where both the First and Second Temples once stood. Muslims call the site al-Haram al-Sarif (the Noble Sanctuary) and have built both the Dome of Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque on its grounds. For them it is the third holiest site in the world, after Mecca and Medina.
Israeli law guarantees freedom of religion for all peoples, however, as a goodwill gesture towards Muslims, Israeli law also states that only Muslims may pray at the top of the Mount. This law has been scrupulously enforced since 1967, when Israel gained control over the Old City of Jerusalem. Please note that although it allows people of all faiths to visit, the law - passed by the Jewish State - prevents Jews from praying at our holiest of holy sites. It is an extraordinary concession that continues to be ignored not only by the Palestinians, but by the world.
Tensions increased over the summer, as the number of Jewish visitors to the site began to increase. Two groups of Palestinians organized separate campaigns on the Temple Mount to harass Jewish visitors. As a result, Israeli security forces banned those groups from entry to the Temple Mount.
Almost immediately, Palestinian leaders accused Israel of trying to take al-Haram al-Sarif away from the Muslims. According to one commentator, this is equivalent to walking into a movie theater and yelling "fire!". Never mind a proven history of Israel's commitment to the exact opposite, and a constant stream of assurances that the Israeli government remains committed to maintaining the status quo. The result has been a series of violent and often deadly attacks by Palestinians incited against Israelis. Israelis have, in turn, used force, sometimes lethal force, to defend against the attacks. Both sides continue to mourn their dead.
Here in Buffalo I mourn as well, and offer my prayer, feeble as it may be, in the hope that one day it will be answered:
For a Palestinian perspective on how to achieve peace, here a powerful article recently written by peace activist Bassem Eid:
For sixteen years, I've been using the same 2x4s to build our family sukkah. Over time they have weathered and warped, so much so that for the past few years our sukkah has started to bend and list. When the wind blows,. we know it, and this has been a particularly windy Sukkot! The rabbis call Sukkot 'zeman simchateinu' - the time of our rejoicing. We are supposed to enjoy our time in the sukkah, sharing the experience with friends and family. When the weather gets too wet we are required to go back inside our homes, because who likes being cold and wet?
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches two things that we can learn from our time in the sukkah . First, the sukkah is a temporary and fragile structure. When we are in it, we are far more exposed to the elements than when we are inside our homes. The sukkah reminds us of the precious fragility of life. Second, we are to specifically make this a time of joy, because while this life may be fragile, it is all we have and it won't last forever. So why not make the best of it?
I love his insight. We spend most of our time living as if we are anything but fragile, and it's easy to understand why. Everything we have, everything we are, can disappear in a moment - even our very lives. If we dwell on our fragility, then we might be overcome with terrible anxiety. Yet, we have a choice. We can react to our many vulnerabilities with fear, or by trying to ignore them; or we can accept our fragility and celebrate the miracles that each new moment brings.
Here in Buffalo, we had an unusually cold and rainy week, and it severely limited our ability to spend time in our sukkah. There was a little window for a short visit on Friday and today, thank God, is beautiful! No matter how we might plan, we are not always in control, and with our wood warping a little more from each day in the rain, we have to make the most of what we have, both material and time.
Tonight we will celebrate Simchat Torah - the joy of Torah. On Simchat Torah we end and begin the annual cycle of reading Torah with dancing and with exuberant joy. Why is Simchat Torah attached to the conclusion of Sukkot? What possible connection could there be between living in a sukkah and celebrating the annual cycle of Torah? The sukkah is temporary, but the Torah is enduring. As we celebrate Simchat Torah let's remember that the sukkah may disappear, our lives may be fragile, but Torah (and God) are always with us, providing us with support and guiding us along the way. I like the sound of that, don't you?
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras