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A New Mitzvah - Rosh Hashanah 5782

Rabbi Toba Spitzer

It’s both strange and remarkable that our Torah reading this morning contains a story that portrays our founding ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, in such an unpleasant light.  Sarah, trying to protect her son Isaac, demands that Abraham cast Hagar and their son Ishmael out into the wilderness, and Abraham goes along with this heartless act.

It’s actually sort of strange that this story of Hagar and Ishmael is in the Torah at all.  They are not central to the narrative of the Israelite people, whose lineage is traced through Isaac. Don’t get me wrong, I love Hagar – she is one of the only women in the Bible to talk to God – twice! – and she is an amazing character.  Her son Ishmael becomes the progenitor of 12 tribes, the Ishmaelites. But it is still unclear why this narrative was included here. Whatever their reason, I admire the biblical authors for having the chutzpah to include Hagar’s story in this key moment in the life of Abraham and Sarah, despite – or maybe because of - how difficult and painful it is.

There is a beautiful commentary that accompanies this Torah reading in our Kol Haneshamah machzor, on page 486 below the line, from the sociologist Robert Bellah, about “communities of memory” and how we tell our collective stories:  

“The stories that make up a tradition contain conceptions of character, of what a good person is like, and of the virtues that define such character.   But the stories are not all exemplary, not all about successes and achievements. A genuine community of memory will also tell painful stories of shared suffering that sometimes creates deeper identities than success…And if the community is completely honest, it will remember stories not only of suffering received but of suffering inflicted—dangerous memories, for they call the community to alter ancient evils.” 

Bellah’s commentary suggests that there is an important and audacious honesty in the Torah’s inclusion of Hagar’s story amidst the story of the ancestors of Israel. The authors of the Torah deemed it important to include a narrative that was not theirs, exactly, but that formed part of their community’s collective memory.

In thinking about how we tell our stories, and which stories it is important to tell, I’d like to fast forward from the legacy of the split between Abraham’s sons Isaac and Ishmael, to its modern manifestation in Israel and Palestine.  I want to offer these thoughts as someone who is neither Israeli nor Palestinian, as an American Jew with deep personal connections to both the land on which those peoples dwell, and loving ties to individuals in both of those communities.  I want to do so in the spirit that Bellah describes here, of telling complex narratives in order to more deeply understand our own identity, and in order to join our stories to more expansive aspirations for a common good.

I think it is fair to say that the topic of Israel is one of the most divisive forces in American Jewish life.  It is a division that is experienced not just communally but personally, with family members unable to talk with one another about what is happening in Israel/Palestine, with friendships torn apart and deep heartache on all sides.  We have a collective incapacity to productively deal with or even talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in helpful ways, and I experience this as a spiritual and moral crisis afflicting the American Jewish community. 

And yet, despite the depth of that crisis, and despite the ongoing suffering on the ground in the holy land, I am not feeling despair.  There is a new consciousness afoot among forward-thinking Israelis and Palestinians that gives me hope.  The challenge for us here in America is to be willing to shed old ways of thinking about the situation, and to step up in ways that will promote greater spaciousness in our hearts and minds that might lead to our being able to be part of the solution, and not just part of the problem.

The metaphor which frames most of our current engagement with Israel and Palestine is that of “sides.”  Whether the sides are understood as Jew vs. Arab or oppressor vs. oppressed, Israeli vs. Palestinian or colonizer vs. colonized, the basic structure is the same.  If there are sides, then I have to choose a side to support – to be Zionist or anti-Zionist, pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian.  In locating myself on a side, I inevitably have to distance myself from those on the other side, to mark all the ways I am not like them.  We spend an inordinate amount of energy, far from the conflict itself, deciding who is in and who is out, what constitutes betrayal, who must be kept at a distance.  It is exhausting and unproductive.

This past May, as rockets flew into Israel and bombs wreaked havoc inside Gaza, a different image came to me.  I knew that people in our community were suffering from this violence happening thousands of miles away. We had members who were frightened and concerned for the safety of loved ones targeted by rockets inside Israel, and members who were heartbroken and enraged at the death and destruction in Gaza.  Some members were experiencing both. And in struggling to figure out how to respond in a meaningful and helpful way to the situation, the language of “sides” led me nowhere.  What I really wanted  to do was put my arms around everyone in this community.  I wanted to put my arms around everyone suffering across Israel and the Palestinian territories.  I wanted to somehow address all of the fear and anger and pain, and leave no one on the side.

A few months later, in August, I participated in a seminar for rabbis organized by the Shalom Hartman Institute, much of which addressed the division in the Jewish community around the topic of Israel. The last session was with the scholar Yehudah Kurtzer, who invited us to explore the mitzvah of ahavat Yisrael, “love of Israel,” as a way into the broader question of what it means to be part of the Jewish people in difficult times.

Kurtzer began by talking about all the reasons that he doesn’t like this mitzvah.  It’s not particularly well-developed in Jewish sources, and the obligation to “love the Jewish people” can be and has been misused to (somewhat ironically) create artificial boundaries of who is “in” and who is “out” of the community. There’s also the danger that “loving the Jewish people” becomes a rationale for ethnocentrism and discrimination.

After exploring the problematic aspects of ahavat Yisrael, Kurtzer suggested that if we want a model of what doing this mitzvah might look like, we should turn our attention to the one character in the Torah who is actually described as loving the people Israel– and that character is God.

This is a fascinating idea. God chooses the Israelites to be a “nation of priests,” a holy people, inviting them into sacred covenant with Godself and with one another. The people agree, and then almost immediately screw it up, causing God to get angry and threaten to completely erase the Israelites, and start all over with Moses. Ultimately, God’s compassion for the people and their shortcomings overcomes God’s anger.  Adonai has made a covenantal commitment to the people, and even when the people stray from their part of the bargain, the relationship remains. God is compassionate and forgives, over and over again.

For Kurtzer, this Godly model of compassionate, covenantal relationship can inspire Jews to stay in relationship with one another, and more specifically, with Jewish citizens of the state of Israel – even when, or especially when, the going gets tough.  But as I was listening to Kurtzer, I realized that that is not really enough.  To go back to the crisis in Gaza, I realized that ahavat Yisrael did not help me figure out my obligations in that moment not just to Israelis but also to the Palestinians who were suffering. It didn’t help me respond to the anguish in my own heart at the deaths of children in Gaza. I could get angry at the Israeli government, sure, but what was my covenantal obligation to everyone involved?

What I realized in that moment is that the establishment of the state of Israel, the creation of Jewish sovereignty in the land known as both Israel and Palestine, the fact of Jewish power and Jewish responsibility along with Jewish suffering, has created a new mitzvah for those of us in the broader Jewish community.  I am calling this mitzvah ahavat yoshvei ha’aretz, the mitzvah of loving all those who dwell in the land.

This mitzvah is, for me, an approach that dissolves the metaphor of “sides.”  It creates a covenantal obligation to, above all else, stay in relationship – with everyone.  With all Israelis, Jewish and Arab and other.  With all those who live in the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, the Palestinian populations of Gaza and the West Bank.  With people who are religious and secular, leftwing and rightwing, with children and farmers and political activists and artists.  With everybody.

As modeled by God, covenantal love does not mean condoning every action of those with whom we are in relationship.  Quite the opposite. Sacred anger is appropriate – is demanded - when human dignity is violated, when human blood is shed.  Covenantal love does not mean ignoring power differentials or structural inequalities. It also doesn’t mean ignoring our own personal connections to specific people and places in that land, or denying our own Jewish narratives. What it does mean is figuring out how to be in relationship even with those who infuriate me, and refusing to place anyone off to one “side” in such a way that I no longer recognize or honor their humanity.  

I have learned this mitzvah from those on the ground who are actually doing it.  People like the members of Combatants for Peace, Israelis who have served in the army and Palestinian who have been jailed for violent resistance, who together are committed to seeking collective liberation and ending the occupation through nonviolent means.  They are committed to hearing each other’s stories, even when they don’t agree.  People like the staff and students of Israel’s Hand in Hand schools, where a new generation of Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel are learning what it truly means to create a shared society.

I may have first learned this mitzvah from my kibbutz mother, whom I met when I lived in Israel right after high school.   My kibbutz mother had moved to Israel in her early 20s from her hometown of Detroit, accompanying the Israeli man who became her husband.  A little over a decade later, he was killed in the Yom Kippur War.  I met her a few years after that, in 1980; she was the single mother of three children.   She was heartbroken at the loss of her beloved, but she was not bitter and she was not hateful. She remained a committed Israeli peacenik, and she is to this day.

I have learned this mitzvah from my friend and teacher, the Palestinian nonviolence activist Ali Abu Awwad,.  As he and other leaders in the Palestinian nonviolence movement Taghyeer work to build Palestinian resilience and leadership at the grassroots level, Ali also understands that, in his words, his greatest enemy is not the Jewish people, but Jewish fear.  He models what it looks like to not let fear define us, and to take action from a place of compassion for self and others.

Those observing the mitzvah of loving all who dwell in the land do not fall along the usual political lines.  One of its Israeli pioneers was the Orthodox Rabbi Menachem Froman, who lived in Tekoa, a religious settlement on the West Bank.  Rabbi Froman – whose legacy is continued by his wife, Hadassah, and many of his students – emphasized both Jewish and Palestinian connection to the land, and the need to recognize the full rights of all who dwell upon it.  Rabbi Froman engaged in conversations with members of Hamas and other Palestinian leaders that other Israelis considered untouchable. He saw no contradiction between his profound love of the land and commitment to the Jewish people and his connection to his Muslim neighbors.  Some of his students are among those who founded Roots, the remarkable organization building relationships of solidarity among Israelis and Palestinians living on the West Bank.

Ali and the followers of Rabbi Froman and a growing number of Palestinians and Israelis are part of an emerging movement that affirms the historic and religious connection of both peoples to the entirety of the Holy Land, eretz Yisrael, Palestine.  There is a new Palestinian-Israeli organization called A Land For All that calls for two states in one homeland, recognizing the claims of both peoples. This group and others are promoting new visions for how the land can be shared and full equality achieved for all its inhabitants.

The particulars of what such an arrangement might look like are not my topic today.  What I want to suggest here is that we in the American Jewish community can follow the lead of these visionary thinkers and activists in Israel/Palestine, and move beyond the divisions that have torn us apart.  This is ultimately a spiritual challenge, not a political one.  By embracing the mitzvah of ahavat yoshvei ha’aretz, the mitzvah of loving all who dwell in the land, we take on the obligation of staying in relationship – to the place and its people.  I have more than one Jewish friend who has told me that, when news from Israel comes on, they put their hands over their ears and hum.  It is just too painful to engage.  I will admit to my own disconnection over the years, sidestepping the issue of Israel here at CDT because I honestly did not know how to address it without causing someone pain.  My silence did not help.

What might it mean to really take this on as a mitzvah?  Beyond a willingness to engage, it means actively listening and learning.  This summer, I read the biography of Sulaiman Khatib, as told to his friend Penina Eilberg-Schwartz (In This Place Together: A Palestinian’s Journey to Collective Liberation, Beacon Press, 2021).  Khatib is a Palestinian activist who was jailed during the first Intifadah, at the age of 14, for stabbing two Israelis.  Over the decade that he spent in an Israeli prison, he gained an amazing education in revolutionary politics and nonviolent activism.  He also had an awakening in relation to those he experienced as his oppressors.  One night he watched a film about the Holocaust. The movie shook him, and he began to read, learning not just about the Holocaust but about Jewish history in general. Eilberg-Schwartz writes: “Certain foundations he’d rested on felt shaken…Maybe the Israelis were a little right. Maybe they were a little in need of a place. Maybe Zionism was not just colonialism out of nowhere.” (p. 88)

This realization was the beginning of Khatib’s journey of political and spiritual transformation, a path towards what he calls “collective liberation” for all who dwell in his homeland.  His experience models for me what it means to be truly open to learning about the other, to being willing to have our foundations shaken.  It is not easy for many of us as Jews to learn about the Nakba, the catastrophe experienced by Palestinians at the founding of the state of Israel.  The testimonies are wrenching, the violence and loss difficult to assimilate.  But part of the mitzvah of loving all the dwellers of the land is to learn this history.  It means learning about the reality of Palestinian life today, seeking to understand the experience of half of the people who dwell in that land. 

It also means being open to Jewish and Israeli narratives that may not be our own.  It entails a commitment to remaining in relationship with the half of the global Jewish population that lives in Israel, whatever our own feelings about Zionism and the creation of the state. It means learning more about Israeli narratives, if those are not familiar to us, or learning more about the variety of Israeli cultures. It means, ideally, actually going and seeing for ourselves.  It certainly means not demonizing an entire nation or an entire people.

Ultimately, the mitzvah of “loving those who dwell in the land” invites us into some radical acts of compassion.  It is easy to feel compassion for those with whom we identify; can we do it for those whom we find alien, threatening, immoral?  The spiritual practice at the heart of this mitzvah is to identify who I find it most difficult to have compassion for, and to begin to practice compassion for them. 

I realized a number of years ago that I was feeling little compassion for Jewish settlers in the West Bank who were the victims of violence by Palestinians.  I figured that they had asked for it by living there.  When I realized my lack of compassion, I was horrified at myself.  This is how I had been dehumanized by the conflict.  And while I still have deep disagreement with the vast majority of settlers, I want my heart to be open to their suffering. I want to stop painting all settlers with the same dehumanizing brush.  I want to keep my mind and my heart open.

For some of us, the challenge will be feeling compassion for Israeli soldiers interrogating Palestinians at a checkpoint, or for Palestinians whose anger and despair drive them to violence against Israelis. Having compassion does not mean letting anyone off the hook, not holding them accountable for their actions.  It does mean recognizing their humanity, and trying to come to some understanding of what motivates them. It means that we work to understand how their liberation is bound up with those whom we more readily embrace. It means that we try to understand their suffering, and our responsibility towards that suffering.

We are lucky here at CDT that we have engaged and thoughtful members who have already shown us what it means to practice this mitzvah of ahavat yoshvei ha’aretz.  Our Israeli-Palestinian Peace working group, and our new Kesher Yisraeli group, are committed to expanding our awareness about the many cultures and histories and narratives that populate the holy land, and creating opportunities to talk about new ideas for achieving justice and peace for all who live there.  I hope all of you who have not yet engaged with any of these activities will do so – and maybe choose one that challenges you a bit, that invites you to expand your awareness, your compassion.

I know that this mitzvah I am suggesting is not easy. And I know that realities in Israel/Palestine are far from hopeful in this moment.  And yet, my hope for our community is that together we can remain engaged, that together we can learn, and together we can support those Palestinians and Israelis who are engaged in the transformative work that all who live in the land so desperately need.

Our Torah portion today ends with the making of a covenant between Abraham and Avimelekh, the king of the Philistines – P’lishtim in Hebrew.  It was these people, the P’lishtim, whose name became associated with the name Palestine for this land. May we merit to see the healing of the wounds between Isaac and Ishmael, and new possibilities for covenant among all of the descendants of Abraham and Avimelekh.  May it be so. 


Rabbi Toba Spitzer 
Rosh Hashanah 5782 

Fri, December 8 2023 25 Kislev 5784