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Jewish Unity: Israel and the Diaspora Sermon

Sermon by Rabbi Melanie Aron

October 17, 2015

Though Liam ended up choosing to read the beautiful passage from the Noah story about the eternality of the seasons of nature, early on in our discussions he was pretty interested in the Tower of Babel.

Is it a curse that we are many different cultures, speaking many different languages, we wondered? What would it mean to be one people with one language? Leaving aside the whole of humanity, what about the Jewish people? We live in a lot of different countries and speak many different languages. We are different in other ways as well and often have different experiences. Are we still one people, am echad?

There is an effort through the Israeli government this year to institute a new holiday of sorts in Israel, a day of Israeli-Diaspora unity- Yom Achdut T’futzot Yisrael. The month chosen for this new observance is our current Hebrew month, Cheshvan, which currently lacks any holidays. Further Cheshvan was chosen because in the matter of praying for rain there was sensitivity in ancient Israel to the needs of the Diaspora. We find in the Mishnah that Rabban Gamliel, head of the Jewish community in Israel, explained that the prayers for rain were put off in Second Temple times until 15 days after the end of Sukkot, so as to allow the last of the Jews to reach their homes by the river Euphrates, that is in Babylon.

This effort to promote Diaspora Israeli unity has been in the works for quite a while, but being released this week, under the current situation in Israel, it has added resonance.

The Israel-Diaspora Day in meant to encourage contact between communities like our fifth grade program of real time contact via skype between our class here in Los Gatos and children at the Chofim school near Sderot. That contact has not only included the children’s conversations but also visits by two of our congregational trips to Israel. There is also encouragement for congregations to develop twinning relations as we are doing with the congregation in Rosh Pina where our Torah scroll is residing. We are looking forward to hosting their rabbi this spring, as I was welcomed last winter to their congregation. Another suggested practice of course is a festive meal with fusion foods- Diaspora and Israel, kreplach and kubbeh, as it were.

This Israel-Diaspora Day is a major step for Israel in terms of acknowledging the contribution of life outside the land to Jewish history. The old Zionist histories went from Bar Kochba to Bilu, Beit Yaakov Lechu Venelchah, the first modern Zionists- as if nothing of consequence happened in between. Now it is recognized that we Hebrews began outside the land, developed basic Jewish institutions in Babylonia, and continued to develop Jewish culture through the years of our wanderings. In the Diaspora, Jews have sung songs of longing for Israel but also for homes outside of the Promised Land.

Sephardi Jewry for example, living in Andalusa, in Spain, created beautiful poems of longing for Zion. But on their expulsion from Spain, as they moved to Turkey, their poetry came to include also poems of longing for Andalusa and for reciting there the poems of longing for Jerusalem. Similarly Orthodox Jews have come to Israel, but they continue to wear the broad rimed hats and coats from their years in Ashkenaz. Finally we think of those who came to Israel as pioneers but still had ties to the lands of their birth. Leah Goldberg wrote a beautiful poem- “Trees”, that expresses that reality.

Here I will not hear the voice of the cuckoo

Here the tree will not wear a cape of snow

But it is here in the shade of these pines

My whole childhood reawakens…

With you I was transplanted twice

With you, pine trees, I grew

Roots in two disparate landscapes.

In traditional Jewish circles it is customary to send all invitations to celebrations, as if the event, say a wedding, will take place in Jerusalem, but then to add a note that in the event that the Messiah fails to arrive, it will take place in, say, New Jersey. There’s a famous passage from Israeli writer, Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Shai Agnon which reads:

“Because of that historical catastrophe when Titus the Roman Emperor destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of Exile, but all the time I imagined myself as having been born in Jerusalem.”

In the spirit of recognizing the importance of the Diaspora, the contemporary writer Amoz Oz points out that the opposite is also true. Agnon could have written: “Because of that historical catastrophe when East European Jewry fell apart, I became a Hebrew writer in Jerusalem. But I always saw myself as one who was born in one of the cities of Galicia and was destined to be a rabbi there.”

Tying it back to the Tower of Babel in our Torah portion, the late 19th Century Polish Hassidic rabbi Meir Shapira of Lublin came up with the idea of Daf Yomi so that everyone in the Jewish world should study the same page of the Talmud on the same day.  He wrote: This will connect all those in Exile to each other, for all will study the same page, thereby creating, “ one language” and “one people.”

Especially in times of trouble, as we have experienced these last few weeks in Israel, the sense of one people becomes more pronounced. ON this weekend of solidarity, on the eve of the World Zionist Congress, we pray that we Jews of the Diaspora and the Jews of Israel will find safah echat, one language, to speak together with understanding.


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