Israel & Palestine; Rosh haShannah 5754

Our understanding, and appreciation of Israel has changed greatly over the years. Much about how we approach Israel depends on our age, and what Israel was like when we came to know it. We have changed, Israel has changed, the whole world has changed. One thing is certain, we will continue to change we can hear this change in the songs of Israel. What new songs will come out of Zion.

Few of us here have lived long enough to remember the earliest days of the return to the land. Beginning a hundred years ago, young Jews from Eastern Europe and the Middle East beared difficult travel conditions to return to Zion. They made their way to the land from which fifty generations earlier Imperial Rome had expelled their ancestors. They returned to rebuild the villages from which over seventy generations earlier, their ancestors had established a glorious kingdom and had given the world an immortal collection of wisdom and literature.

These young people went to the land to build it and to be rebuilt by their efforts within it; as they sang in their song:

Anu Banu Artza, Livnot u'lhibanot ba.

(we have come to the land to build and be rebuilt by it)

They came with great expectations, yet also much modesty of what they might accomplish as expressed in another of their songs:

Artza alinu

K'var charashnu v'gam zaranu

aval od lo katzarnu

(We have gone up to our land; we have plowed and planted

but we have not yet harvested our crop. (Sh. Navon))

These young people built institutions and an infrastructure that lead to the State of Israel. Few of us have even met any of these powerful dreamers, but we live in a world transformed by their vision.

What is your first awareness of Israel? In part, it depends on your age and where you grew up. If, like me, you grew up in the states during the sixties... you probably became aware of Israel sometime in the late fifties or early sixties, certainly by 1967. If you are of my parents' generation, Israel probably became real to you in 1948. In either case, we came to know Israel long after the dreams had establish the vision I've just described.

My parents' generation's understanding of Israel is based on the knowledge and the raw experience that Israel was not always there! A time existed when Jews were no more than a tolerated minority everywhere in the world and there was no one they could count upon to stand up for their rights. This generation knows in its guts the difference between a world with an Israel and a world without.

For my parents, the songs of the earliest pioneers represent the promise of Israel and the hopes of security.

I don't question the possibility of Israel. I, and I imagine most of us here, take it as much for granted, the same as we do France, or Bolivia, or Ghana. I came of age during Israel's youth; a time when unaccepting neighbors closed Israel in and restricted its sense of connection in the world. At this time Israel began to learn how to use its strength and Jews around the world walked more secure in the knowledge that the State of Israel knew how to take care of itself.

But inside the state, the generations of the dreamers gave way to a new group of young people. This generation did not choose to face the struggles of a return. The men and women who now lead the State of Israel inherited the task of strengthening and safeguarding the foundations established by their parents. They represent a generation of warriors, like the generations of Joshua and the desert. In the words of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin: these are the soldiers who have returned from battles stained with blood; ...who have seen [their] relatives and friends killed before [their] eyes.... The songs that expressed their dreams sang of adventure and struggle.

During the 1950's many young people learned desert survival practices on their own, separate from army training. They knew of the ancient Nabatean people who traded between Arabia and Rome during the time of the earliest rabbis, two thousand years ago. The Nabateans built a city called Petra into the red rock canyons in the desert of what is now southern Jordan. (You've seen a Hollywood reproduction of the city in the third Indiana Jones movie.) They sang of the Red Rock. Many young people travelled to the forbidden city... usually barefoot... few of them returned:

O haSela haAdom, haAdom....

This new generation even treated some of the idealism of their parents with cynicism as they reworked one of the classic old songs:

Artza alinu, eizeh shtut asinu, Artza alinu

(We have gone up to our land; What a silly thing we've done, We have gone up to our land.)

During the 1956 Sinai Campaign, Israel captured Sharm el Sheikh at the southernmost tip of the peninsula. In the armistice that ended that series of battles, Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt for guarantees of safe passage through the waters of the gulf around Sinai. After Israel recaptured the Sinai during the 1967 war, a love-song to that tiny spot of land became extremely popular in Israel and among Jews in the States:

Ad Sharm el Sheikh, Chazarnu eilayic shenit, At b'Libeinu, libeinu tamid.

(To Sharm el Sheikh, we've returned to you a second time, You are in our hearts... always.)

Always is a long time. Does anyone here remember that song? What happened?

Another song of the period has had much greater staying power... though strangely enough its author wrote it before the war of 1967. It tells us something special about Israel at that time. Still today, the exquisite Hebrew of the text evokes powerful feelings (sing it with me if you wish):

Avir harim tzalul kayayin

v'reiach oranim

nisa b'ruach haarbayim

im kol paamonim

Uvtardeimat ilan vaeven

sh'vuya bachaloma

hair asher badad yoshevet

uv'liba choma

Y'rushalayim shel zahav

v'shel n'choshet v'shel or

halo l'chol shirayich ani kinor

(The mountain air is clear as wine, and the fragrance of pine is carried in the evening breeze with the sound of bells. And in the slumber of tree and stone, captured within a dream, is the city which sits deserted, and the wall is in its heart.

Jerusalem of gold, of bronze and light, am I not a harp for all your songs?

But when I come today to sing unto you, and to bind garlands for you, I become smaller than the youngest of your sons, or the least of the poets. For your name burns the lips like the kiss of a seraph. Let me not forget you, O Jerusalem, that is all of gold. (N. Shemer))

The song speaks of Jerusalem using the language of the book of lamentations, as though the people of Israel lived on the banks of the Euphrates in Iraq, not on the shores of the Mediterranean with the capital of their state in a city called... of all things: "Jerusalem!"

Something strange began to happen to Israel.... Among other things, it started thinking of itself as "greater."

One of the most popular songs drew a line from the Bible and with jubilation sang of how:

U'faratzta, Yamah, vaKedmah, Tzafona, vaNegba!

(And you will expand to the sea, to the east, to the north and to the south!)

While the proclamation of Independence of the State of Israel implicitly recognizes the rights of the Palestinians to their own state alongside Israel, shortly after the 1967 war, Godla Meir, speaking as Prime Minister of Israel had the audacity to say that there was no Palestinian people. In attitudes that seemed to mirror each other and increase in their stridency, the Palestinian people themselves recognized Jews as a religious phenomenon only with no rights to national self determination and statehood.

Nonetheless, most of the songs of the period continued, in hope, to sing about a future of peace. One, called "Tomorrow" Machar (which preceded Annie's version) asserted that we would experience peace tomorrow Machar and if not Machar tomorrow, then using the special Hebrew way of doubling something, Machartayim The-day-after-tomorrow. Another song about next year sang:

Bashana habaa

neisheiv al hamirpeset

v'nispor tziporim nod'dot

y'ladim b'chufsha

y'sachaku tofeset

bein habayit l'vein hasadot


Od tireh, od tireh

kama tov y'h'ye

bashana, bashana habaa

Soon the day will arrive

When we will live together

And no longer will men live in fear;

And the children will sigh

without wondering whether

On that day, dark new clouds will appear

Wait and see, wait and see what a world this would be

If we care, if we share, you and me.

And the vines, they will grow

And tender leaves will blossom

And the fruit of our hands will be sweet.

And the winds that bring change

will clear away the ashes,

And as brothers and sisters we'll meet.


Od tireh, od tireh kamah tov yihiyeh

Bashanah bashanah haba'ah

Wait and see, wait and see what a world this would be

If we care, if we share, you and me.

People dream, people die

To make a bright tomorrow,

And their visions remain in our hearts.

Now the torch must be passed

with hope and not in sorrow,

And a promise to make a new start.


Who here is twenty years old or more? Close your eyes and try to picture where you were twenty years ago today.

On Yom Kippur in Jerusalem... the streets are very quiet. Everything remains very still throughout the clear hot morning. Debbie and I were in Jerusalem for our first year of marriage and the rabbinic program at the HUC. During the break in the services at HUC, we wandered a few blocks away to the conservative shul in Jerusalem. There we noticed: apartment doors slamming people hurrying, car doors opening and shutting, folks climbing onto trucks and driving away. As we walked behind the YMCA building we saw a man on his apartment's patio listening to the radio and asked about the cause of all the commotion. From him we learned that Egypt had crossed the Suez Canal and attacked Israel. The men had been called up to join their units. Other people ran home to prepare houses: fill tubs with water, stretch strips of masking tape across windows; Fortunately Jerusalem did not see battle, but the war certainly brought death and sorrow to many families

After that war, a new sense of disquiet descended on Israel. The song of the period that became most popular... the one that spoke most directly to the needs for peace, was no longer a buoyant song like those that followed the 1967 war. This song's tone is one of yearning, if not resignation. A new generation, one raised in a time of perpetual battle, sang this song to its children:

Ani mavtiach lach, yaldah sheli k'ntah, sh'zot t'hiyeh hamilchamah haachrona.

(I promise you, my little girl, that this will be the last war.)

I do not know what songs Israelis now sing. But our children have come to know of Israel from the television and the newspapers as a place that often makes them uncomfortable. The same strength that made us proud a generation ago, now appears to be used to oppress others and often makes us cringe.

Since the past few weeks' events (1993), as President Clinton said we have come to a new beginning. Others speak of being on the eve of a new time, at the dawn of a new day or, as Chairman Arafat said: on the threshold of a new historic era.

Chances are, that the first songs will be tentative, because transforming the easy habits of hatred into the hard labors of reconciliation, to use President Clinton's phrase takes a lot of effort. Much like this headline in the largest Israeli daily newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, "With Hope and With Worry."

The day of the signing (now nearly two weeks ago... how these events pass into the accepted assumed past of history!) Deborah Lipstadt, a Jewish historian attended. Afterwards she also attended a reception with Vice President Gore and President Clinton. At the reception he had the opportunity to tell the President and Vice President a bit of Torah. She explained that the Torah portion the Shabbat before the signing: Nitzavim (same reading as today morning) has in it the phrase "haHayim v'ha'mavet nattati lefanecha... u'vacharta b'hayim... Today I have placed before you life and death, the blessing and the curse... therefore choose life." Professor Lipstadt remarked to the President: some important choices were made. May they be for life.

As President Clinton stated in his speech: the future can be better than the past.... The peace must render the people who make it more secure.... yearning for the quiet miracle of a normal life.

For the faint of heart, those people who fear what might come, those who remember only the past, those who are trapped in their yesterdays, cannot make tomorrow happen. We need to remember that the strength of the Jewish people through the ages has been in our twinning of memory: We remember not only yesterday; re-remember also tomorrow. We remember the pain and we remember the hope; we remember hayamim hahem (the days of old) and we remember acharit hayamim (the days yet to come). It should come as no surprise that the generation of warriors is the one that now actively struggles to come to an agreement to keep another generation from experiencing the same horrors they went through.

We say with Hillel: If not now, when?

These are indeed days of awe as we stand on the threshold of peace. (Advertisement in Jewish Journal)

These words of another recent song suggest that the headline of Yediot Ahronot, "With Hope and With Worry" will continue to be with us for some time to come.

Al hadvash v'al haoketz

al hamar v'hamatok

al biteinu hatinoket

shmor Eili hatov

al haeish ham'voeret

al hamayim hazakim

al haish hashav habay'ta

min hamerchakim

Al kol eileh al kol eileh

shmor na li, Eili hatov

al hadvash v'al haoketz

al hamar v'hamatok

Al na taakor natua

al tishkach et hatikva

hashiveini v'ashuva

el haaretz hatova


For the honey and the bee sting, for the bitter and the sweet

All the things which join as one to make our lives complete

For the future of our children, for our prayers will never cease

For the hope that with tomorrow comes a world of peace.

(Hebrew: N. Shemer; English verse: J. Klepper, D. Freelander)

©Mark Hurvitz