My Heart Is In The East

Sermon Parashat Devarim/Shabbat Chazon
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
My Heart is in the East

None of this is supposed to be easy. 

It’s certainly not a comforting message but it’s a necessary reminder of the brokenness of our world. Among the peaks and troughs of the Jewish calendar, we now find ourselves in the shadowy valley of the Tisha b’Av, the Ninth of Av. Known as the ‘Black Fast’, this day of mourning is considered our darkest liturgical day where we remember the destructions of the First and Second Temples as well as a host of other calamities that have befallen our People. On Tisha b’Av, which starts tonight after sundown, we sit on low chairs, observe a 24 hour fast and mournfully read the Book of Eicha, Lamentations. 

For many modern, liberal Jews, Tisha b’Av is hard to connect to. Do we really mourn the destruction of a hierarchical, patriarchal, undemocratic structure? After all, the Churban(destruction of the Second Temple) allowed Rabbinic Judaism – the democratized, interpretative Judaism we now cherish – to sprout from among the burnt ruins. Still, Tisha b’Av is about so much more than historical literalism: it’s about depth and darkness, of our ability (and our courage) to consciously seek out pain, anger, tragedy and disappointment. 

This is an impulse that runs counterintuitive to our modern ‘pursuit of happiness’. Tisha b’Av pushes us to examine and reexamine our collective (and at times) personal trauma. The Book of Eicha is hard to read, especially if the reader identifies as female: fair Zion, our beautiful Jerusalem, is portrayed as treacherous, victimized and desolate. In a time of difficult conversations, or even difficult conversations about the conversations, it doesn’t get more difficult than this. 

Every year, the month of Av, that darkness gains a particular immediacy. I remember observing Tisha b’Av in Jerusalem a number of years ago. The heat was oppressively scorching as we walked to the Kotel haMa’aravi, the Western Wall, for a Masorti (egalitarian) reading of Eicha. We sat on the warm,, pale amber stones, some of us barefoot as mourners, as we let the accusatory mournful dirge wash over us. During the day, the struggle against thirst felt real and intense, with the hot, unrelenting sun over our heads. The plight of the beleagered Jerusalemites, starving of hunger and thirst, felt more palpable in that setting.

Today, we are here, however, thousands of miles to the west of Yerushalaim. As the Medieval poet Yehudah haLevi wrote a thousand years ago: ‘Libi be’mizrach v’anochi b’sof ma’arav…’ – ‘my heart is in the East but I am in the utmost West.’ My heart has been in the East many times. 

My first trip to Israel was when I was 17 after I had won a European-wide essay writing competition on the Holocaust. It certainly wasn’t my last, as I would travel to Israel many more times; for short visits as well as spending three summers living, praying and learning there. My last trip was when I was six months pregnant with my son so I like to think that he got to experience ‘Eretz haKodesh’, the Holy Land, in utero. 

For one who considers herself a Chovevet Tzion, a lover of Zion – including the land, language, history, culture and religion, this relationship with Israel has become more nuanced, more complex and yes, more difficult. As a non-Orthodox Jew, a female Rabbi, as someone who who loves the vibrant multiculturalism and the start-up spirit of modern Israeli society, who values the contributions of all Israel’s citizens, be they Muslim, Jewish or Christian, my prayer for peace has become more urgent. 

As a Jew, I cherish our religious culture that does not force us to choose between the false dichotomies of the heart and head, between our critical faculties and deep loyalties. To be a patriot to one’s Judaism means to speak loving truth and to be the unyielding guardian of one’s conscience. To remain silent is to surrender hope: in justice, peace and reconciliation. 

So, it saddens me, on this Shabbat of the Ninth of Av, to descend into the deep and speak rabbinically and prophetically of what is transpiring in our spiritual homeland. 

Proudly enshrined in the Israeli Declaration of Independence, are the guarantors of freedom and justice for all her inhabitants. Please allow me to read: 

‘The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

This is a stunning statement of all that Judaism and Israel could and should be. Yet we are saddened to see that this culture of freedom, justice and peace for all inhabitants has been steadily eroded. Last Thursday, Conservative/Masorti rabbi, Dov Hayun was woken at 5:30 am by the police and detained at the police station. His alleged crime? Officiating at a Masorti wedding. The Rabbanut (Chief Rabbinate) holds the monopoly on all matters of religious status (birth, marriage, conversion, death) in Israel and has become increasingly severe in asserting its authority.

Non-Orthodox marriages are routinely performed in Israel by our clergy – and I have several close rabbinic friends who were married thus in Israel – but are officially considered ‘illegal’. This recent incident, however, is the first time the police has gotten involved and detained a colleague of mine. In fact, an amendment in the law stipulates that failure to register a marriage with the Chief Rabbinate can be punishable by up to two years in prison. Luckily, Rabbi Hayun was released although the investigation is still pending. Piece by piece, the religious freedoms of Reform and Conservative Jews are compromised as the stranglehold of the Rabbanut increases.

Israel, in the spirit of her visionary founders, is meant to be a State for all Jews. 

All of us.

We may be familiar with the unending negotiations and breaking of promises when it comes to an egalitarian prayer space (the Ezrat Yisrael) at the Western Wall. We may be familiar with the disheartening stories of non-Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora trying to make aliyah(immigrate). We have heard the disturbing cases of people like Kenyan Jew Yehudah Kimani who was denied a student visa for the Conservative Yeshiva on account of him being a Jew-by-Choice of African descent and deported from Ben Gurion Airport. 
We learn that Israel is not immune to the same xenophobic and exclusionary impulses that plague much of the Global North.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism has spoken out with concern over the new ‘Nation-State Bill’ passed in the Knesset (Israeli parliament) earlier this week. This bill, albeit modified, codes for Jewish exclusivity in certain aspects of Jewish civic and religious life, providing more exclusion and hardship for non-Jewish (Israeli Arab) citizens and strengthening the hand of the Chief Rabbinate. Rather than building up a healthy, inclusive, patriotic vision of shared civic and national identity, it creates tension between the ‘democratic’ and ‘Jewish’ aspects of the Zionist national project. Rabbi Jacobs states:

‘The damage that will be done by this new Nation-State law to the legitimacy of the Zionist vision and to the values of the state of Israel as a democratic—and Jewish—nation is enormous.

We will continue to fight back by promoting the values of the Israeli Declaration of Independence and by forging new ties between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. We will deepen our engagement with Israel, using every means possible to promote a Judaism in Israel that is inclusive and pluralistic and reflective of our values of equality for all.” 

Rabbi Jacobs is not alone in his expression of concern. 

The Anti-Defamation League and a host of other Jewish organizations have condemned the bill which demotes Arabic from an official language on par with Hebrew to merely having ‘special status’ and which is seen to disenfranchise non-Jewish citizens in a State that lays claim to its exclusively Jewish character, in direct contradiction to the Founders of the State.  

As the Prophet Isaiah stated in this third and final Haftarah of Admonition: ‘Wash yourselves clean; put your evil doings away from My sight… Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged…’ (Is. 1:16-17). 

‘Libi b’mizrach’. My heart is in the East and my heart breaks.

Tisha b’Av, however, is not just a day of despair. A rabbinic teaching states that on Tisha b’Av, the Messiah is born. It is always darkest before the dawn. By going into darkness and speaking truth, we are the hand that brings Redemption. It is not upon us in the Diaspora to despair, to relinquish the cords of love to bind us to our land. What is upon us is to be bold and zealous in our pursuit of justice, in holding Israel accountable to her own highest standards and to pray and work towards peace for all her inhabitants. 

The Black Fast of Tisha b’Av ushers in our march to the White Fast of Yom Kippur – it marks the beginning of the protracted season of repentance, bringing us to the High Holidays. 
Let us engage in the work of t’shuvah, repentance, and envision a kinder Israel, a gentle and faithful – ‘ne’emanah’ – Zion. 

Let us close with the prayerful Psalm that has been on the lips of our People for millennia:

Sha’alu shalom Yerushalaim yish’la’u ohavaich, 
Yehi shalom b’chailech, shalvah m’arm’notaich,
L’ma’an achi v’ra’ai adab’rah na shalom bach,
L’ma’an beit Adonai Eloheinu avakshah tov lach.’ – 

‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, may those who love you be at peace,
May there be well-being within your ramparts, peace in your citadels.” 
For the sake of my kin and friends, I pray for your well-being; 
for the sake of the house of the Eternal our God, I seek your good.’ (Psalm 122:6-10) 

Acharei chen yikare lach ir hatzedek kiryah ne’emanah’ – ‘and after that you shall be called City of Righteousness, Faithful City.’ (Isaiah)

May our hands hasten the coming of Redemption – for Zion, for the land of Israel, for our People and the world. 


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