From Rabbi Deana Sussman, Central Reform Congregation
What is the first word that comes to your head when I say “return?”
Some of us might think of returning an item, like clothes to a store. Some of us may think of returning home to the family and friends that we love. Some of us may think of a return to a previous state of being. The possibilities are endless. But on this Shabbat Shuvah, this Shabbat of Return, I’m going to invite us to think, for a moment, about what the word “return” really means.
Shabbat Shuvah falls during the Days of Awe, these ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when we’re supposed to be focusing on doing a cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of the soul. Shabbat Shuvah is named after the haftarah portion that we just read from Hosea. It says “Shuvah Yisrael,” “return Israel,” and asks that we see the error of our ways and return to a life of Godliness. And so, this is the time that the Jewish tradition sets aside for soul searching, and the work of teshuvah, of doing the work of atonement and changing ourselves for the better. We hopefully gain awareness of ourselves during this time, awareness of our successes, but also awareness of where we can do better in the coming year. We are asked to turn away from the mistakes of the past and turn toward our better selves.
And so I’m going to ask that we keep this on the back burner as we further explore this idea of shuvah, this notion of return. The Rabbis debate what it means for Israel to return. But this morning, on this Shabbat Shuvah, I’d also like to think about what it means to return to Israel. Our liturgy speaks to a yearning to return to Israel, to the heart and soul of the Jewish people. For some this means a return to the physical land of Israel. For others, this is more of a metaphor, a yearning for a spiritual return to Israel.
For me, it’s both. Israel represents for me a spiritual and physical homeland for the Jewish people. And just a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to return to Israel. The Jewish Federation of St. Louis invited me to join a trip for young congregational rabbis who had been working together and thinking about how to make space for the young adult community to engage in the topic of Israel. I, along with my colleagues, Rabbi Noah Arnow of Kol Rinah, Rabbi Ari Kaimin of Congregation B’nai Amoona, Maharat Rori Picker Neiss of Bais Abraham Congregation, and Rabbi Jonah Zinn of Congregation Shaare Emeth had noticed a lack of engagement with the subject of Israel within our peer group. It seemed to us that there did not seem to be a safe space in St. Louis for young adults to comfortably engage in the subject of Israel. The conversation had become so polarizing, so black and white, that there left no room for true dialogue, discussion, and disagreement. And we wondered if we might be able to create a new paradigm, a new way of engaging with Israel that made space for unconventional and traditionally unsafe ideas. How could we encourage the young Jewish community to shuv, to return to the Israel conversation?
And so we returned, physically, to Israel in search of some answers. We wanted to understand the issues present in Israeli society today. And we didn’t want to find out about them from the political institutions that spoke about Israel but didn’t really speak to Israelis. We wanted to hear the narratives of those living in Israel, those who are confronting these issues as part of their daily lives. What motivated them? What challenged them? What troubled them? What did they see as potential solutions to these problems? And how, if at all, could we help?
We met with more people than I can begin to count. We explored the religious tapestry of Israel and met with an archbishop from the Armenian Church, a bishop from the Lutheran Church, the gentleman in charge of the Islamic Waqf, and the priest who oversaw all of the Hebrew speaking Christians in the region surrounding Jerusalem.
We went into Hevron, in the West Bank where we toured the Cave of Machpela where it is said that Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Rebecca have been laid to rest to see firsthand the stark divisions between Israeli and Palestinian society. You see, in this place, one of the holiest of sites, the tension is unbearable. The building is split, literally, down the middle with barricades and locks dividing the tombs. Jews pray on the side where Abraham and Sarah are buried, Muslims on the side of Isaac and Rebecca.
In Hevron we met with religious and secular settlers to hear their narratives. For me, this was a first. I had never had the opportunity to sit and listen. And even though I knew I wouldn’t always agree with their narratives, it was important for me to hear their story. We met with one of the original settlers of Hevron, who moved there mere days after the 1967 war. This gentleman, who did not consider himself a religious Zionist, told a fascinating story. He said that he had been spared twice: he had narrowly escaped the horrors of the Holocaust and was able to flee Germany where many of his family members perished. Just a few years later, he fought in the War of Independence in 1948, where many of his friends and comrades died, but he was spared once again. And so at this moment in history, when so many people for so many centuries had yearned to return to this piece of land, and in fact had given their lives for it, how could he sit comfortably in his home in Tel Aviv? This was God’s plan for him; he was being called to settle the Land.
We paid a visit to the Abraham Avinu Synagogue in Hevron where we were told the story of how Abraham came one morning to make a minyan when there were only nine men present. How could we leave Hevron, asked one of the settlers, if Abraham Avinu’s spirit lives there? Abraham Avinu is only one, he needs us to be there to complete a minyan.
That same day we toured East Jerusalem to see firsthand the living situations of our Palestinian brothers and sisters. It pained me to see the blatant disrepair of these communities. These people who were tax-paying Israeli citizens lived in second class conditions; their roads in disrepair, their water systems often inadequate, and of course, the incredible inconvenience of crossing the checkpoints on a daily basis. But the moment that stopped me in my tracks, that forced me to come face to face with the tremendous inequity these people faced on a daily basis, was watching the residents of East Jerusalem cross into West Jerusalem. They are not allowed to drive across the border. Rather, we watched as person after person walked across the checkpoint. “How did they get to their jobs after crossing, we wanted to know. How were they supposed to transport all of their things with them?”
And so, just as I had hoped that they would, these perspectives challenged me. They asked me to listen with open ears and see things from a different point of view. Just as we do in our Truth and Reconciliation work here in St. Louis, I needed to hear all of these stories with their many intricacies and emotional attachments, and in doing so, open myself to someone else’s truth.
We met with people who are trying to find ways to co-exist within the boundaries that have been set in place. We toured the Hand in Hand School for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel. There, we learned about the school that was originally founded in the 1990s by a group of mothers who had sent their children to integrated schools only to find that their children would be forced to separate in kindergarten into schools based on their faith traditions. These parents wanted something better for their children, a way for their children to maintain and strengthen relationships with their neighbors in an organic way.
We met with an esteemed panel of Jewish feminist voices in Israel who spanned the spectrum of religious diversity where we talked about the unequal gender biases that still plague Israel. The list goes on and on.
But the question that we kept returning to, the question that continues to dominate our conversations is this question of identity. What is Israel’s identity? Is Israel a Jewish State, meaning that she is a state which operates under the structure of halakhic authority? And if so, whose halakhic authority are we talking about? Is Israel a State for Jewish people, meaning that she should represent the plurality of Jewish expression present within its borders and serve as a refuge for Jews around the world regardless of their religious observance level? Or, is Israel a Democratic State for all of its citizens, meaning that Israel should live by the values that Judaism holds dear, the most important of which is to treat every person with respect and dignity, ensuring that they have an equal place and a voice within the society?
These are the questions that seem to have no answer. Whenever we are confronted by questions of what Israeli society should look like, we are really coming back to these questions of who Israel is, at her core. From questions as simple as whether stores will be closed on Shabbat to questions of whether the Orthodox rabbinate should have a monopoly on conversion, marriage, and divorce to the huge questions of citizenship, we are constantly grappling with our priorities. Which of these impulses will win out? Which value or priority will direct the conversation?
So on this Shabbat Shuvah, as we turn inward in reflection and contemplation with the intent of transforming ourselves and turning ourselves in new directions, we pray for new wisdom and insight and awareness of how we can do better in the coming year. How do we love Israel but disagree with her decisions? How do we engage of this metaphor of hugging and wrestling, supporting and challenging? How do we return to Israel when she may not be living out the values that we want to return to? So today, we pray to more fully understand Hosea’s imperative of shuva Yisrael, return Israel, both in the sense of how we, the Children of Israel turn and return, but also in how we return to this question of Israel.