Yom Kippur – 2016
Entebbe and Wiesel: Why Be Jewish?
July 4, 1976 was a wondrous day. Having grown up in the Philadelphia area I took many school trips to Independence Hall, where the Declaration of independence was ratified, to the Liberty Bell and many other historic sites. I was proud that I lived in the birthplace of our nation. I remember watching the Bicentennial celebrations on TV – the parade of tall ships in NY harbor and the fireworks that night. I was 14 years old and I remember thinking how glad I was that I could witness and experience that historical day for our country.
But there was another historical event that occurred that day about which I was even more proud. A week before - on June 27, 1976 - an Air France flight left Tel Aviv bound for Paris. The plane was hijacked, diverted to Athens where it took on more passengers and more terrorists, and then flew to Entebbe, Uganda. Jews were separated from non-Jews and the non-Jews were almost immediately set free. The 106 Jewish passengers and Air France crew, who had volunteered to stay with them, were left behind. For days we didn’t know what would happen and then on July 4 I remember waking to the news of the daring Israeli military operation that managed to free 103 of the passengers. Three were killed in the crossfire and one Israeli soldier, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, was killed by Ugandan Army sniper fire. With little or no intelligence about the airport, the number of terrorists or any other information, Yitzchak Rabin – Israel’s prime minister, and Shimon Peres, Israel’s Defense Minister – authorized the mission. As Yitzchak Rabin was quoted as saying to his wife on July 3, “tomorrow I will either be King of Israel or I will be hung from the town square.”
At the time, I was a Jewish Day School student who had lived in Israel just 3 years before and was about to travel to Israel with my parents again. I was a teenager who grew up with a love for Israel and a powerful commitment to Zionism. July 4, 1976, in my house, was centered more that day on the miraculous mission of Israel’s army than it was on America’s bicentennial. It was a day that we could be proud to support Israel and feel good about our Jewish identity. Nearly 3 years after the Yom Kippur War when Israel and Jews around the world felt threatened and felt that Israel faced near-destruction, Operation Entebbe made us feel dramatically better. It made us feel that no matter what and no matter where we are in the world, if we were in trouble Israel would come and save the day.
Nearly 40 years to the day after the daring Israeli raid on Entebbe, Elie Weisel died. This past July 2, after he passed, President Obama said, “After we walked together among the barbed wire and guard towers of Buchenwald where he was held as a teenager and where his father perished, Elie spoke words I’ve never forgotten — ‘Memory has become a sacred duty of all people of goodwill.’ ” I’m sure all of us read Wiesel’s book Night. We were moved to tears as he described the horrors of the death camps, witnessing his father’s death and exploring his religious identity. That book, and many others he wrote, helped generations of people begin to understand what it means to be a survivor. Wiesel was “the” spokesman for all Holocaust survivors. His eloquence spoke for them and for the six million. He represented them on the global stage and never refrained from telling world leaders – including President Reagan – what they needed to do to honor the memory of the Holocaust. Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize 30 years ago in recognition of his moral authority and his work in keeping the memories of the six million alive.
Though much can be said about the impact Operation Entebbe had on Israel and Elie Wiesel’s life had on us, the Jewish people, I think there is a broader Jewish lesson to be learned. The juxtaposition of the 40th anniversary of the raid on Entebbe and the death of Elie Wiesel highlights in a sense what it means to be Jewish. As we spend the day today in serious prayer and reflection, one phrase which repeats in every service is: “mah anu, meh chayeinu, meh chasdeinu…mah nomar lefanecha – what are we, what is the meaning of our lives, what acts of compassion have we performed…what can we say to You, [O God]?” This phrase not only reflects how humble we must feel in the presence of God, but it should prompt us to ask the deep and profound question of who we really are. What are our values? Where do we find meaning in life? What do we think about our Jewish identity and our relationship with God?
Some may find meaning in our relationship to Israel. After the 1967 Six Day War many American Jews felt pride and joy in being Jewish. They were ecstatic about the little country in the Middle East that overwhelmed the mighty armies of its neighboring Arab countries. So many American Jews came out of the woodwork and proudly proclaimed their Jewishness. Just six years later when Israel’s very existence was threatened during the Yom Kippur War those same Jews bought millions of dollars worth of Israel Bonds to enable Israel to purchase what it needed to survive. Events like those wars, and Operation Entebbe in 1976, made it easy to be Jewish.
But is being proud of Israel enough on which to base our Jewish identity? Is it enough to say that I’m Jewish because I love the State of Israel? What happens when we don’t love Israel? What happens if you count yourselves among those Jews who feel disenfranchised by Israel either because of its treatment of non-Orthodox Jews or because of its lack of peace with its Palestinian neighbors? If our connection to Israel is the main thing that defines our Judaism and that connection is threatened by Israeli government policies then how does that affect our Jewish identity? How do we answer, “what are we, what is the meaning of our lives”?
There are others in the community, especially survivors and children of survivors of the Holocaust, who define their Judaism as “never again”. Some people claim they are Jewish so that Hitler won’t have a posthumous victory. Their Jewish identity is defined by an event – the worst evil perpetrated by Man against humanity. They are Jewish because they have to ensure that Judaism will survive another generation. They are Jewish because the memory of the six million hovers over their heads. They are Jewish because Hitler forced them to be Jewish. Though the Holocaust ended 71 years ago these Jews are still Jewish in order to prove Hitler wrong.
But is defining our Jewish identity based on the Holocaust enough? Does it provide the positive fulfillment we need in our religious life? Does it adequately answer the question of “what we are and what is the meaning of lives”? Or does it only answer the question of what we are not? Is a negative purpose – “never again” – enough to provide positive meaning in our lives today?
The juxtaposition of the 40th anniversary of Entebbe and the death of Elie Wiesel highlight this foundational question we ask today. Yom Kippur provides us the opportunity to do real soul searching. 364 days a year we carry on with our lives; earning a living, taking care of our family, doing our day-to-day chores and activities. Today we stop and ask ourselves what are we really doing with our lives? What is the meaning of all the things we do and is it really worth it in the end? Are we gaining fulfillment from our activities and is the reason behind the values we hold dear and our religious identity really as positive and strong as it should be? Yom Kippur forces us to ask “what kind of Jew are we and what is the meaning of our Jewish lives?
I am thankful that I was raised with a love for Judaism. I was privileged to attend Jewish Day Schools from kindergarten through 12th grade and I was thrilled to have been able to travel to Israel many times with my family while growing up. My home was a very Jewish home. We kept kosher, we went to shul every Shabbat and we celebrated all the Jewish holidays. We were Jewish 24/7. I loved being Jewish and learning about Judaism so much that I attended a Jewish studies college – Gratz College - in the evening while attending Temple University during the day. I spent my junior year of college at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Judaism was so much a part of who I was and how I defined myself that I knew that I had to share that love and passion in the profession I would choose. I knew that being a rabbi would afford me many possibilities through teaching, leading services and daily one-on-one contacts, to engage many people in the “Jewish conversation”.
Now I know that my Jewish perspective and background isn’t typical of most of us here today. I know that having a rabbi as a father and growing up basically as a Jewish nerd is not the same experience that you’ve had in your own lives. Perhaps my passion and my background make me too different and perhaps you may not feel connected in the same way I do.
Nonetheless, I am convinced that my Jewish passion stems from my own reflection and evaluation of that phrase we repeat today, “what am I.” In order to get into rabbinical school I had to write several essays about aspects of Jewish life and my own personal theology. There were many other rabbi kids and day school graduates who may have taken their Jewish lives for granted and who may have thought that being a rabbi would be an easy job; a job that would only highlight all the Jewish knowledge they had already. Those rabbinical school essay questions made me come to terms with my Jewishness and enabled me to articulate why I am Jewish.
I am Jewish not just because I was born Jewish. I am Jewish not just because I am a Zionist. I am Jewish not just because of “never again.” I am Jewish for all those reasons and many more. I am Jewish because I know that the morals, ethics and religious principles of Judaism provide the foundation to navigate life in the world today. I am Jewish because Judaism provides me a life of meaning and purpose.
The world outside these doors is a dangerous place. It is filled with fear and anxiety. Though there are 7 billion people in it, the world can be a lonely place too. How do we begin to find our place in the world? How do we confront the fear and anxiety and reduce the level of tension and stress in our lives?
The answer is right around you. The first thing we need is community. When we ask those questions over and over today – “what are we, what is the meaning of our lives” – we do so in the presence of this community. Yom Kippur is the only sacred occasion that is observed in its entirety in the synagogue. That isn’t an accident. It’s meant to teach us that when we ask the most basic and profound questions that touch our soul – questions that might be best asked in private – we instead ask them with hundreds of people around us. The answer to “what are we, what is the meaning of our lives” then is community.
Research-studies have consistently shown that Jewish people today most of all seek meaningful relationships. Finding community isn’t just about finding a group of friends to watch a ball game with or to have dinner with. It’s about finding people who have the same values; the same people who ask the same questions about life and about religious identity. It’s about finding a community where we feel comfortable sharing our concerns and growing in knowledge and life experiences.
That’s what Judaism can provide for us. We have a religious system that treats the basic questions of life in a serious and fulfilling way. We have a religious system based on 3,000 years of sacred text and tradition that encourages us to question and study. We’re not meant to just read these words in the machzor on our lap. We’re meant to reflect upon them and think about how we relate to them today. That’s what our tradition teaches us and that’s what makes it meaningful and relevant to our lives.
We are about to recite the yizkor – memorial service – prayers. At this time especially as we remember the lives of our loved ones we also reflect on the meaning of life. Life is too short as we remember our parents, grandparents, siblings, spouses or children. We had too little time with them yet the impact they had on us was tremendous. What values did they teach us? How did they make their lives meaningful? How did their Jewish lives define who we are as Jews today? How do we live on in their memory and carry on their legacy?
“Mah anu, meh chayeinu – what are we, how are our lives meaningful”? Do we just remember Entebbe and yearn for the day when we can be proud of our relationship with Israel? Do we just remember Elie Wiesel and cry out against the Nazi atrocities? Or do we go deeper and confront our desire to be part of the greater enterprise that is our Jewish identity? Can we sincerely commit to seeking a meaningful and profoundly enriching life and can we find it here in our shul and in our tradition? Can we help each other build such a community that will support each of us on this religious journey?
May the rest of this Yom Kippur and this coming year be one of finding meaningful answers to those questions. Amen.