Rabbi Lezak's Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon - 2016/5777

“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes
your partner.” -Nelson Mandela
L’shana tova. “Achat sha’alti me’eit Adonai, o’tah avakeish, shiv’ti, b’veit Adonai, kol y’mei cha’yai / There’s
one thing I ask of You God, there’s only one thing that I seek, and that is, to be seated and present
in God’s Holy House, each and every day of my life.”
It is a remarkable invitation to intentionality that the rabbis gave us: Read those words and the rest
of Psalm 27, two times a day for 50 straight days, from the beginning of this past Jewish month of
Elul, all the way through Yom Kippur and ending on the last day of Sukkot. Why this Psalm?
Because, in the midst of this tumultuous Psalm and in the midst of this pained and broken world,
you and I, we have been summoned to work. We have been gifted with a vision. What are we
aiming for? Shiv’ti b’veit Adonai kol y’mei cha’yai / to be rooted and present Beit Adonai all the days of
our lives. What does Beit Adonai look like? To me, it’s a world and a universe where God’s healing,
holy and redemptive Presence knows no boundaries, where shalom permeates every heart and ever
Each morning during Elul, during the first 29 days of this 50-day long ritual, we are commanded to
hear the sounds of the shofar. These staccato blasts jolt us awake from our slumber, serving to
remind us of this vision, to remind us of our work. Psalm 27, and perhaps all of Jewish living is
about walking through this broken world of ours with a set of prophetic goggles on at all times.
Donning these goggles, we have been given sacred double vision. We look at a situation and we
simultaneously see the world as it is, in all of its pain and, at the same time, we see the world as it
should be. This double vision gives us great agitation. It really hurts sometime to see and feel all of
the pain in the world. Yet these goggles serve as instantaneous reminders that this is not the way the
world should be. These goggles gift us with sacred imaginations and prophetic aspirations.
Tonight, on Rosh Ha’shana, I want us to reaffix our prophetic goggles. I want us to clean off our
lenses. I want us to remember that you and I are sacred agents of change and of teshuva, that we are
here to return ourselves and the world to a place of wholeness, to a place of healing. And that even
the tiniest acts of teshuva, even the smallest turns we make in our lives have the potential to bring
about monumental change.
Goggles on? Ready to look at the world as it is? Ready to hold fast to the vision of the world as it
should be?
Here we go. It’s a scorching July afternoon in the West Bank. I’m standing on a parched stone
plateau in the Palestinian village of Susya. In front of me, I see two things: a jagged hole three feet
in diameter cut into the rocky ground with a ladder descending down into the earth. And just
beyond the hole, a giant, dilapidated canvas tent that had seen better days. The hole in the ground
was a cistern designed to collect rainwater for Palestinian villagers. The ramshackle tent housed
Palestinian families in this most desolate and desperate of places.
I came to Susya with a delegation of 15 T’ruah Rabbis. Our tour was organized by Breaking the
Silence, a righteous organization that has interviewed over 1000 Israeli soldiers who’ve served in the
West Bank, helping them to share stories about the moral compromises they made during their
military service. Soldiers answer questions like, "What was the relationship like between the settlers
and the soldiers? What were you told to do in the case of Jewish violence toward soldiers or
Palestinians?" and ultimately, "Why did you break your silence?"
I went to the West Bank because I felt morally obligated to be an eyewitness to the ongoing Israeli
Occupation. I needed to see it up close. I needed to hear the stories. I needed to meet settlers and
Palestinians. I had to witness what is being done in my Jewish name. On our Jewish clock.
In Susya, we heard stories about how rogue settlers have dropped rusty metal auto parts into
Palestinian water wells, rendering their scarce and precious water undrinkable. About how settlers
bully and attack Palestinians on their way to tend to their olive groves, their sole source of income.
And, perhaps most painfully, we heard about how the Israeli government, police and army, the ones
bearing the flag of the Jewish state, of the country I so deeply love, often do too little, too late to
stop or prevent such attacks.
Breaking the Silence aims to help Israel and Israelis take a collective cheshbon ha’nefesh, a reflective,
intake about the price that 50 years of occupation have exacted on our people. It aims to help
Israelis and Israel to make teshuva, to transform silent shame and pain into righteous and redemptive
action. They courageously invite Israelis, and by extension, you and me, to look head on at the
metastasizing cancer that is the Israeli occupation.
On our way to Susya, we drove past lush Jewish settlements circled by concertina wire, security
fences and armed guard towers. Behind the fences, we saw shaded chicken coops and a massive
dairy farm with hundreds of satiated jersey cows.
In my mind, I toggle back and forth between the shanty town that was Susya and the well-to-do
Jewish settlements, between Jewish power and Palestinian powerlessness, between the dairy cows
whose thirst is well-quenched and the Palestinian wells poisoned by Jewish fundamentalists. Here in
the West Bank, I can clearly see why an increasing number of young American Jews feel a sense of
shame rather than a great sense of pride when they think about the Jewish state.
Look. I know the Middle East is a radically complex region. Hey, it’s not Honolulu. If only. I
know all setters are not devils. And all Palestinians are not angels. And vice versa. In fact, in the
days preceding my visit, two separate Palestinian terror attacks near Susiya took the lives of a father
of ten and a 13-year-old girl. So you can imagine, when our tour guides began our tour by
explaining why they didn’t rent a bulletproof bus that day, I began wondering, ‘Might we need a
bulletproof bus today?” I decided not to let my wife or my mom know this minor detail until I was
safely back in Jerusalem. I felt exposed that day. Not only morally, but physically as well.
On our way back to Jerusalem, we stopped at a gas station in Kiryat Arba, a town of 500 Jewish
settlers surrounded by 120,000 Palestinians. There in the parking lot, I watched as heavily armed
settlers filled up their tanks and purchased groceries for their families. I shook my head in disgust. I
left the West Bank livid. At the settlements. At the settlers. At the army. And at the Israeli
government. And I felt, deep in my heart, deep in my bones: this here is a shonda. This here is an
open, festering wound on the collective Jewish soul. This here is so far away from my Promised
That night, Noa, the girls and I had dinner with our dear friend Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum and
her amazing family. Over dinner, I shared stories about my dark and depressing day in the West
Bank. I seethed with disdain and anger toward the settlers. Tamar, in her quiet, soothing way
looked me in the eye and said. “Michael, I know your pain. Believe me, I know your frustrations.
And yet, we have to find a way to work with the settlers. They are organized, they are powerful and
we need them to help Israel become what she must become. We won’t make peace without them.”
I paused in my tracks. I looked at Tamar, a woman whose beloved brother was killed while serving
in the West Bank, a woman whose husband served in Gaza and still does army reserve service 30
days a year, a woman who is raising three beautiful daughters who will serve in the army in the not
too distant future, a woman who would have every reason to hunker down, to build up walls and to
vilify these fundamentalists, and yet, she said to me, ‘We have to work with the settlers. We won’t
make peace without them.’
That was a holy and pivotal teshuva moment for me. At that moment, when Tamar extended an
invitation to introspection, to change, she helped me transform my resentment and paralysis into a
glimmer of hope and a desire to reach out. She helped me to clear the lenses of my prophetic
goggles. She helped me to see possibility where I had seen none. Imagine if I had not taken Tamar’s
advice. I could’ve spent the next five weeks or five decades infuriated with those extremists and
making blanket statements about groups of people I’d never even met. Would I have felt selfrighteous,
and morally superior? For sure. Would we have come one inch closer to peace? No
Do you remember when the lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson1 came to speak at
Rodef Sholom this past January? Looking out at our mighty congregation and our guests, Stevenson
reminded us all, that we have tremendous power, power to bring about justice and righteousness
here in Marin and in the broader California and American justice system. That night, Stevenson
gave us four exhortations. He pushed us:
1. “to get proximate or close to other people
2. to have the courage to change unproductive narratives
3. to tether ourselves to hope, for the opposite of hope” he said “is injustice
4. and lastly, Stevenson said that we need to do uncomfortable things”
Tamar had never heard of Bryan Stevenson. And I’m sure Bryan’s never heard of Tamar. But I
think that they are teaching the very same Torah.
Tonight I want to think about this teaching. Tonight I want to explore this Torah of proximity and
of changing narratives and of doing uncomfortable things. Tonight I want to extend invitations to
you and to me, to have the moral courage to look inside, to make teshuva, to make minor turns in our
attitudes and in our approaches to life and to one another, that could have a massive impact, not
only in our personal lives, but in our families, our communities, our country and in Israel and
Tonight, I have three teshuva stories to tell: one from Palestine, one from Israel and one from the
tremendously holy place where Palestinians and Israelis make teshuva together.
First, a story of Palestinian teshuva. Four days after I was in Susiya, we were back at Tamar and
Yossi’s table for Shabbes lunch. They invited their friend Yakir Englander to join us. Yakir grew up
in the ultra-orthodox community of B’nai Barak outside of Tel Aviv. He did not meet a secular
person until he was 22 years old. When he did his national service, he worked for Matkal, the
righteous group tasked with the horrific job of cleaning up after suicide bombings. These deeply
haunting experiences shook Yakir, waking him up to a life fiercely devoted to working for peace in
Israel and Palestine. He joined the staff of Kids4Peace, a global movement of youth and families,
dedicated to ending conflict and inspiring hope in divided societies around the world. Yakir was in
charge of hiring staff for their summer youth and young adult camps. Finding Israeli Jews to work
at the camp was easy. Finding Palestinians was more challenging. Not because Palestinians are not
interested in this work. But because participating in Kids4Peace could jeopardize their safety. Yakir
was at his wit's end.
Not long after an email came in from a Palestinian woman in the West Bank named Amal. She was
interested in the job. She came in, interviewed and was a perfect match. By the way, the name
‘Amal’ means ‘hope’ in Arabic. A little about Amal’s staggering background. Her father is a founder
of one Israel’s most feared terrorist groups, a group responsible for killing hundreds and injuring
thousands of Israelis through the years. Let’s call him ‘Mr. Hamas’. Amal went to her father ‘Mr.
Hamas’ one day, and said that she wanted to become a shahid, a martyr, by becoming a suicide
bomber in Israel. He said to her, “Listen Amal, I have worked with Israelis for years, I know them,
in real life, and I have made my decision about being a freedom fighter, but you, you know Israelis
only from the military, when they are brutal. In order to be a shahid in Islam, you need to really
choose that path. Go and meet with Israelis” he said “and then come back and sacrifice yourself for
the freedom of Palestine.”
She agreed and went to a peace seminar in Japan. There she met Israelis face-to-face, in all of their
complexity as they are with their pain, their fears, their beauty and their ugliness and she learned to
love them. After Japan, Amal decided to go and learn to be a facilitator, to build herself not as a
martyr but as a peace activist.
Think for a minute about the psychic and emotional distance that Amal travelled in her young life.
Think about how doing the uncomfortable work of getting proximate with Israelis allowed her to
create a radically new narrative, and for the first time in her life, to feel even a flicker of hope. I
don’t know what the Arabic word is for teshvua. But I do know that the change that Amal went
through is profoundly inspiring and deeply life-affirming.
Next, a story of teshuva Israel. Two nights ago, I stayed up late to watch the funeral of Shimon Peres
live. Short of being in Jerusalem, I wanted to be at one with Israel and with Israelis on this most
momentous day. I deeply admired Peres. I admired how he built up Israel’s military might in the
aftermath of the Shoah. I admired how he courageously took over after Yitzchak Rabin was
assassinated. I loved how he wore gorgeous suits in a country that is allergic to formal wear, how he
was an elegant and regal statesman in a country whose Parliament often resembles the World
Wrestling Federation.
The Israeli writer Amos Oz recently wrote that ‘Shimon Peres had a rare and valuable quality: the
ability to change. People who have reached the age of 60 don’t usually change.” Oz went went on
to say, “When I met Shimon Peres after the Yom Kippur War, he was still [in my eyes] a banal
hawk, supporting settlers, in love with settlers, a person who put security first, “the more land the
better,” “the more power the better…The man changed before my eyes, discovered the boundaries
of power, and although he never disregarded the power of force, he began believing that there was a
need for compromise, for dialogue and for peace involving concessions.”2 It was as if Peres cleared
the lenses in his own prophet-goggles at this stage in his life.
“Many talk about Peres’s optimism, which knew no limits. In fact, behind this optimism hid a
stubborn hope that the wisdom, the words and the effort would change the face of reality. It was
sometimes a naïve hope, but I find it a thousand times better than the shrewd cynicism.”3
In making teshuva, in turning his life and in aiming to turn Israel’s trajectory, Peres opened up
worlds and pointed us toward redemption.
Peres famously said, ‘When you [only] have two alternatives, the first thing you have to do is to look
for the third that you didn't [even] think about, that doesn't even exist.”4 He understood deeply all of
the reasons for despair and yet he opted for hope.
And lastly, a story about the fertile, holy, prophetic ground where Palestinians and Israelis join
forces to make teshuva together. While we were at Rabbi Tamar and Yossi’s Shabbat table, Tamar
said, “So far, we haven’t been able to claim peace in the region through military might. And peace
hasn’t yet come through a political solution. Instead,” Tamar proffered, “I believe that we need a
spiritual solution to the matzav, to the situation. Shalom,” she said, “will come through individual
and collective teshuva, from internal spiritual work, from getting face-to-face with people and from
finding the strength to have difficult conversations.”
Three weeks ago, Tamar took part in a symposium called ‘Amen’ which brought together Jewish,
Muslim and Christian religious leaders and their congregations to worship together in one large
room in Jerusalem over an eight-day period. “It was a sight rarely seen in this segregated city…The
project, was initiated by [Tamar] and the Muslim Sufi Sheikh Ihab Balah almost a year ago. They
reached out to six other religious figures—two rabbis, a Franciscan monk, a Catholic priest, a Coptic
deaconess and a female Muslim community leader.”
And you think getting Trump and Clinton supporters together in the same room is difficult?
Tamar said, “I never believed something like this would be possible in my lifetime. Jews who live in
the territories publicly praying with Palestinians, this is a big risk and a huge step. But this is not a
political project; we wanted people to come from the right and from the left and to show that faith
is above ideology. Here, we are reshaping reality and we are doing it through prayer. For most, this
was a completely new experience. Catholic Rev Rafik… admitted he had never met anyone from
the Coptic church before. Father Alberto Fer, the Franciscan monk, had never before spoken with
a female rabbi. Particularly significant was the cooperation of three imams, including one from the
al-Aqsa mosque up on the Temple Mount—the most important site for Muslims in Jerusalem.”6
Eight interfaith clergy, from seemingly radically different backgrounds came together in this most
contentious city in this most contentious region at this most contentious time. They got proximate,
they claimed a new narrative, they kindled hope in one another, and in this rabbi standing in front of
Rev Rafik said, ‘To say the truth, I wasn’t really convinced at the beginning. The idea was very nice
but I did not see how it could happen. But when we started meeting, I was surprised at how real
relationships developed between us all and I discovered there was something [powerful] there. And,
that friendship between us I think, is the humble beginning we need to change people’s hearts and
from there, their minds."
If these Christian and Muslim and Jewish clergy and their communities can get together and sing
and pray and begin to forge a new reality in Jerusalem, who’s to say what you and I can’t do. Think
of the most intractable relationships in your life. Think of that sibling who hurt you a month or a
decade ago. A boss or a parent or a friend. If Amal can turn and if Shimon Peres and the eight
clergy at Amen can turn, who’s to say what we can’t do. Who’s to say?
“Achat sha’alti me’eit Adonai, o’tah avakeish, shiv’ti, b’veit Adonai, kol y’mei cha’yai / There’s one thing I ask
of You, there’s only one thing that we seek, and that is, to be seated and present and safe in the
Your Holy House, each and every day of our lives.”