The Sacred Center, Yom Kippur 5779/2018

Four generations. We were setting the table in my mother’s home in Jerusalem this summer. My mother, Savta Jo, drew one of the placemats closer. On it was a replica of an ancient map of the world. Savta Jo explained to her great grandchildren: “This map was drawn 500 years ago by a Christian traveler on a religious pilgrimage. Notice how this map looks like a three-leaf clover. One leaf is Europe; one is Asia; the third is Africa. The center that he drew,” she explained to them, “is Jerusalem. The sacred center.”

That sacred center, the Old City of Jerusalem, is filled with ceramicists, but there is only one “Jerusalem Potter.” The Christian Armenian family of Stephan Karakashian was brought to Palestine in the early 1900’s to help repair and replace tiles in the Muslim Dome of the Rock. Following the 1967 war, he was asked to create the tiles – the street signs – that grace every alleyway and path through the Old City – in Hebrew, Arabic and English. I left his shop on the Via Dolorosa many years ago, stepping out into the maze of alleyways. “Can you give me directions to the Jaffa Gate?” I asked. “Can I give you directions?” he said. “I made the signs.”

On one of our many visits to Jerusalem, David and I bought my parents a beautiful bowl from the Jerusalem Potter. I was surprised on a subsequent summer visit to find it missing from the shelves. My mother explained: it was dropped on the counter, cracked – and known to not throw out anything, my mother brought it back to the potter, and asked if he might repair it.  Which he was happy to do. “That was November,” my mother said. “I haven’t had a chance to go back. “Would you mind picking it up for me?”

I was happy to have an excuse to visit him. I found my way there, explained that my mother had brought the bowl to him back in November. Did he by chance still have it? After all, this was now the middle of the summer. “Come with me,” he said. I followed him to a side room, and sitting on top of a huge kiln was the bowl. I remembered it perfectly. He took down the bowl and took out the note, in my mother’s handwriting, that was sitting inside. The note was in fact dated November – three years earlier.

I gasped, “You are so faithful!” 

He said, “This is nothing. Around the corner is my friend, the shoemaker.  In 1947, a Jewish customer ordered a pair of sandals. Then the war broke out, and the city was divided for twenty years. In 1967, the customer came back to pick up his sandals.” 

Kiryah ne’emana. The faithful city.

2,800 years ago, the prophet Isaiah described Jerusalem as the faithful city. For three thousand years, she has been the faithful center. Even in the worst of times. And two thousand years ago, it was the worst of times.

Please. Imagine that the year is 72 CE – almost 2,000 years ago.

Only a few years earlier, the Romans had laid siege to Jerusalem, murdered priests and teachers, burnt the Temple to the ground. So many Jews were sold into slavery that you could buy a slave for the equivalent price of a nickel. Jewish life as we knew it was over. But from this cauldron, a new Judaism will emerge; it is the Judaism of the rabbis, our Judaism, the Judaism that has sustained us for two thousand years. The great Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai secretly calls fellow Jewish leaders to join him to plan a Jewish future. Imagine this gathering on the coast of Israel – in an academy called Yavneh.

Speaker #1 (Shira to center podium)

Friends, fellow rabbis, colleagues and students. We are gathered together in dangerous times. Our beloved Israel is in a precarious situation. As Jews, we are besieged from all sides. Our community is deeply divided; we can hardly talk to each other, much less listen. And so I implore you to set aside some of your deeply held beliefs, if only for these minutes. Our community is at a crossroads; it’s hard to know what path to walk down; it’s hard to know what God and Jewish destiny are calling us to do.

I hardly need to remind you that we have to build from the ashes of the destruction of our people. Some of you are here because you escaped this inferno. Yes, some of you are survivors. Some of you had the good sense to flee earlier – to the caves of the Dead Sea, or the desert plateau of Masada.  Some of you have survived by adapting to the ways of our neighbors. And some of you have chosen to continue to fight, at all costs. I want to hear from each of you. Our survival as a people hangs in the balance. 

It will be easy for us to walk out on each other – or to be offended by what our friends (or former friends) may say. Those who speak to us today have taken great risks to travel here today. You can imagine how unsafe the roads are; there are soldiers and terrorists and zealots everywhere.  Again, I implore you to listen. What they say is likely to reverberate for thousands of years. Who knows, thousands of years from now, we may hear the echoes of these thoughts

First, from hiding in the caves of the Dead Sea, we invite a member of the Qumran Community. Please, tell us about yourself.

[Dead Sea Sect]

Speaker #2:   “The first thing I want to say to all of you is that you are the cause of the destruction of the Temple. Because you didn’t follow God’s commandments, because of your sinful behaviors, Jerusalem was destroyed.”

Shira:  Whoa. Could I ask you to lower the rhetoric. Perhaps you might tell us more about yourself, and not about the rest of us. 

Speaker #2:  “Okay then. For decades now, my family has seen the corruption in Jerusalem. We have seen how our people have given up on observance and mitzvot. It is impossible to preserve the essence of our Jewish way of life living among the Romans and the heathens and the Jews who want to be like them. And so we made the decision, along with a few hundred other families, to leave Jerusalem and to head out for the desert. There we have lived in isolation, protected from the contamination of a culture of entertainment and frivolity. We live in piety and purity. We only admit the purest of our Jewish brothers and sisters into our community. The survival of the Jewish people will depend on us – for we are the distillation of the holy and the pure.” 


Speaker #3:  Hah! You think you’ll survive in the wilderness? That the Jewish people can survive on holy fumes?   I heard that a few years ago, one of your settlements was attacked on Shabbat, and what did your community do? Rather than desecrate the holy Sabbath, you laid down your arms. Did God come to your rescue because of your piety? Right. The Romans couldn’t have cared less. Everyone man woman and child was massacred.

If you ask me, the only answer is to the fight the Romans to the death. They only understand force; in fact, the whole world only understands force. We have always needed a strong army. And now we need to re-arm ourselves. Every person needs a weapon. You are probably wondering who I am. My name is Eliezer and I have also come here from the desert – but not from some pure and pious settlement – oh no. I have escaped from the mountaintop of Masada. It’s true – I have also seen the brutality of the Romans. We’ve been holding the mighty Roman army at bay for years.  We will never succumb to the power of Rome; we can never allow ourselves to be sold into slavery, or to be seduced by their ways. As far as I can tell, you all are traitors – I stuck a knife in my “fellow” Jew who thought we could make peace with the enemy. The only way to be Jewish is to live as a free people in our own land. The only answer is to continue to fight. Down to the last man.


Speaker #4:  Don’t knock being seduced. Judaism may be beautiful, but how many Shabbat candles are you going to light if you’re dead? At least if you’re alive, you can give thanks to God in your heart. You can marry and love and have children and raise them to be decent human beings. You think being Jewish is the only way to be a good human being? And you people think that the only language you can pray in is Hebrew. God hears us whatever language we speak.  We can bring our Jewish values and ethics to Rome and merge into the greatest human enterprise the world has ever known.

Speaker #2:  Rome? There is no Jewish life outside the land of Israel. It is only in Israel where we can be fully ourselves, where we can live a fulfilled Jewish life.

[Aveilei Tziyon – mourners of Zion]  

Speaker #5: I really don’t get the rest of you. We are living in an age of total destruction. Yes, there is a Jewish community in Babylonia, and in Egypt – but almost all the Jews of the world were living here. Can you fathom the destruction of millions of our people? There is really no way now to even think about regrouping. You know the words of Ecclesiastes, “There’s a time to be born, a time to die, a time to dance and a time to mourn?” Well, now is the time to mourn.

[Jewish Christians]

Speaker #6: Oh Mary don’t you weep don’t you mourn. God hasn’t abandoned us, my friends. God is giving us a message. The Old Covenant with the people of Israel has been shattered, but God has given us a New Covenant – a New Testament. We don’t need laws and mitzvot; we need faith. You don’t have to be born of the Jewish family to be Jewish; you only need the spirit. Keeping kosher was part of the Old Covenant. God doesn’t care what goes into your mouth, only what comes out.  And bringing sacrifices to the Temple to atone for our sins? God ended that with Jesus. God allowed Jesus to be sacrificed for our sins. Now and forever.  Everyone who believes can be part of this new Church. God has sent us a New Testament and a redeemer. Born is the King of Israel. 

Each of these voices – each of those communities – was lost to the Jewish story. The Dead Sea sectarians died in their purified isolation, refusing to welcome the diversity of the Jewish people. The fighters on Masada ended in mass suicide; the military and nationalist revolt against Rome failed – as a result, there was no independent Jewish life remaining in the land of Israel. The world may have been enriched by those who were once Jewish, but those who assimilated were lost to our community. And the followers of Jesus became Christian.  

But something else amazing, and radical, succeeded. It is the Judaism we live. Judaism became portable. Instead of the Holy Temple, each home became a holy temple, a mikdash me’at – a sanctuary in miniature. You know that priestly benediction – may God bless you and watch over you? Who says it today? Who are the priests of today? We are  – each of us – as parents, as grandparents, as friends. God blesses us through one another. And instead of one holy ark, every community has a holy ark, with Torah in its center – the ongoing interpretation of the Divine hope for the Jewish people. 

But even as we became portable, we never lost our connection to the land of Israel.  In the midst of our joys, we remembered. Every wedding ended with the smashing of a glass, a reminder of the shattering of the Temple  – and the hope of rebuilding a world of joy. Every Passover Seder ended with “Next year in Jerusalem.” Every grace after meals. Every day. Jerusalem remained the sacred center.

But again, we are at a crossroads. Again, staggering after the massive, nearly incomprehensible destruction of Jewish life, this time in Europe. We are still wide-eyed at the miracle of the reborn State of Israel. And yet, again we are fighting about what it means to be Jewish, and about our connection to the land of Israel. The voices are back.

Speaker #2:  They are not Jews, I tell you. They desecrate the holy name. I saw them at the Kotel, the Western Wall. Men and women praying together. And singing! The voice of a woman is an abomination. Men without kippot. Women wearing a tallit. I could not believe my eyes. I had a shopping bag filled with groceries. Thanks to God I had something to throw. Eggs, fruit – I would have thrown stones if I could have found them quickly enough. They are not Jews and their Judaism is not Judaism. We must burn this evil contamination from the midst of our people. 

Speaker #3:  Let’s face it. The whole world wants us dead. How many resolutions have been passed by the United Nations? And how many of them are against Israel? Gimme a break. Like there’s no violence or corruption or human rights violations anywhere else. Not the Congo, and not South Sudan, and not Saudi Arabia, and not Afghanistan and not Venezuela.  And we’re surrounded on every side by hostile Arabs.  And frankly, even on the inside we’ve got hostile Arabs. It’s a mistake that we ever gave them the idea that they could be equal citizens of Israel. We finally passed the new Nation-State Law. Now they know which way we’re headed. And any Jew who supports them is traitor, an enemy of our people. We are Jews. Words like ‘equality’ and ‘democracy’ are out of the picture. This is a Jewish State. 

We gotta do what we gotta do to survive.

 And what we gotta do is have a strong army. Yeah, sometimes it means terrorizing people. It means innocent people are gonna get hurt. It means building a wall and putting people through checkpoints. It’s tough. But what’s the choice. And if our boys who have served in the territories think they have the right to speak about what they did? And threaten the Jewish State? They call themselves “Break the Silence.” Well, I’ll tell you what I would break.

Speaker #4

Leave me alone already.  I really find this whole conversation boring.  I am happy to just be an American – the movies I watch, the language I speak, my friends, the values important to me are universal– What I really care about, the issues that concern me, are not over there, they’re all around me here, the poverty and racism right here at home.

Speaker #7:

I’m a proud Jew with a deep love for Israel. I’ve got a lifelong résumé of engaged Jewish activism to prove it. But in today’s Israel, that may not be enough to let me in the country.  I was born and raised in an AIPAC-loving, liberal American Jewish Zionist family. At 19, I was arrested at the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., while protesting for the Soviet Union to free its Jewish citizens. I attended Jewish Agency meetings and advocated for Ethiopian Jews to be returned to Israel. Later, I made aliyah. I took Israeli citizenship. I learned fluent Hebrew. I made Israel my home. I lived through wars and terror attacks and intifadas, just like other Israelis. (continued on next page)

This, too, is my résumé: I spent several years working for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, working for women’s rights, equality for Arab citizens of Israel, LGBT adoption rights, freedom of expression and human rights education – all of which has been challenged in these last weeks. And now, people like me – who love Israel and who love democracy – are being held at the border for questioning.” [adapted: Hadar Harris, Haaretz, August 23, 2018]

We are at a time of crisis – a crossroads. Sometimes, Israel feels so distant, even for those of us who return to Israel often. It feels like we are losing our connection.

According to all the polls here in America, the younger we are, and the more progressive we are, the less likely we are to feel connected to the land of Israel.  My own children are in this cohort. They are young and they are progressive. They grew up in our home – Zionist, Hebrew-speaking. They can sing the songs that form the heartbeat of the Israeli story from before they were born; they spent countless summers in the land of our ancestors. Yet, Israel sometimes feels very distant.

This sermon originally had a different ending, but it changed this summer.  This summer, with four generations, brought me home to the sacred center. The last time Yaron was in Israel was ten years ago, to introduce his first baby to his great grandparents, my mother and father. But this summer my mother turned 90 – and Yaron decided to meet me, with his two older children, Cruv and Rimon – in Jerusalem. Four generations. Yaron copied me on his note to my mother, on his return to San Francisco.

I was not in the pictures I took.  But as we touched down in San Francisco, emails [and pictures came in.]  And there I was, in the alleys of the Old City and on the walls of the David’s Tower, as an Abba, in my late thirties, with children.  And, somehow, I was surprised.

In the ancient city, in your timeless home, and with you and your ageless vitality, I thought I would look different in the pictures.  I would be seven, racing up the stairs…I would be eleven, sitting on the mirpeset as the birds welcome the sun…I would be thirteen, rounding the corner to the “Pita Man” of the Jewish Quarter.  I would be nineteen, challenged and challenging ancient texts.  Even with my children, with my beard, with your walker, with artisanal ice cream and craft beer…even as Saba is no longer there and his desk is in the corner, it was, at moments, as if I were a boy, a teen, a young man, and a grown Abba, as if I could bend thirty years of time.

If I could bend time, I would have bent our five days into…. I don’t know how long would have been enough.  I don’t know how long the glow would have lasted.  Being with you, in your gentle hand, in your home, in your city, reminded me how much I miss the sacred center,…yet I rarely go.  That I have not nourished the part of me that could feel the bend not only of thirty years, but the bend and embrace of three thousand.

  It was not a sure bet two thousand years ago that we would survive. At the beginning of the first century, it is estimated that there were 7 million Jews worldwide; by the year 500 we numbered less than half a million. In between was the loss of the Jewish state.  

So much these days seems to hang in the balance – so much of what we value. We can take none of it for granted – including the State of Israel. We need to be better advocates for Israel here at home. Criticism of Israel, in places all over the world, but even here in Westchester, is morphing into anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rhetoric. That is hatred and bigotry that endangers every one. On the evening of October 11th, David Elcott will lead a session: “Don’t Walk Out on Israel: advocating when it’s complicated. An interactive training.”

And on October 20th, Shabbat morning one month from now, we will have the exceptional opportunity to study with Anat Hoffman, the director of the Israel Religious Action Center, a champion of religious pluralism and civil rights in Israel.

And in November, Kol Ami is heading out on an extraordinary pilgrimage to Israel. Based in Jerusalem, our sacred center, we will connect more deeply to the complex narratives of Israel. There are still a few spaces left on this trip.

What we have is precious. The Torah, the sacred story we brought to the world, changed human history- that human beings were created in the Divine Image, b’tzelem elohim, that God moves through liberation, and that each of us is here to bring our own and unique blessing to the world.  We were named Yisrael, God wrestlers, taught to take on any authority, even God, in the fight for justice. We dared to believe that the world can get better. 

And you have a part in that story. The voices that sustained our people through that crisis were not the voices of ultra-Orthodoxy, or zealotry, or exclusion or intolerance.  Our voices, our Reform, progressive Jewish voices, are needed now more than ever. Those of us committed to justice and human rights for all citizens of Israel must not cede the space to those who are not. 

Our voices are needed now more than ever.

Speaker #7: I bring my voice, our voices.  I come today to sing – Of you, the faithful city. To pledge our faithfulness.

Jerusalem of copper, of gold, of light. Lest I forget thee, Jerusalem.

Im eshkachech yerushalayim asher kula zahav

Yerushalayim shel zahav, v’shel n’choshet v’shel or, 

Ha-lo l’chol shirayich ani kinor.