July 28, 2023
When Tomorrow Dawns
This transcript was edited and formatted by a third party and may vary from the live sermon delivered at Shabbat.
When Tomorrow Dawns
Rabbi Sarah Berman
I weep for these things, my eyes flow with tears;
Far from me is any Comforter who might revive my spirit.
—Book of Lamentations
This week, in the Torah, as in life, we encounter staggering heartbreaks in the life of the people of Israel.
In Torah, Moses knows his life is coming to an end—and despite begging, God will not allow him to enter the Promised Land with his people. The anguish of this rejection, of this break, is visceral. The name of the parashah, Va-et’chanan, literally means “I pleaded.” But no matter how much be pleads, God denies Moses the opportunity to cross into, to set foot in the Land. God denies Moses the opportunity to fulfill his life’s mission. Moses must sit with his sorrow and disappointment, not knowing if his people will be safe, if they will remain united, if they will find home.
In life, this week, we saw [Israel’s] Knesset pass the first of its judicial overhaul package—the so-called “reasonableness” law. With this legislation, Prime [Benjamin] Minister Netanyahu and his coalition seek to “eliminat[e] the Israeli Supreme Court’s ability to review the reasonableness of government decisions and appointments.”
This is no small change. It effectively strips the Israeli Supreme Court of its ability to check the power of the Knesset. In the words of the Israel Policy Forum, this effectively turns Israel into a “majoritarian” state, one in which the rights of the minority can be fully subjugated to the desires of the majority. Despite the last seven months of massive, unprecedented protests in opposition to these proposed changes, the current ruling majority took this first step in cementing its power this week.
Israel has spent its first 75 years as a democracy without a constitution, without a bill of rights, but with the dual pillars of Knesset and [Supreme] Court providing the checks and balances that ensured rights and representation to all Israelis. Now, with this legislative attack on the judiciary’s ability to balance the power of the Knesset, there is little to prevent a ruling party from ignoring and changing laws and legal precedent in its pursuit of power.
The Israeli people—tens of thousands across the State of Israel—and concerned Jews in cities around the world, have stood and shouted and chanted and written and begged their elected leaders to take a different direction. For seven months, they have taken to the streets nightly, refusing to grant their government unlimited and unchecked power. They—and we—have demanded that Israel not lose its core identity as a Jewish and democratic state.
Va-nitchanan, we have pleaded.
But it feels as if we have been denied.
Democracy is in peril in the State of Israel.
Moses’s heart breaks when God denies his request, just as many of our hearts are broken now that Israel’s ruling coalition has moved forward unilaterally with their judicial reforms. For Moses, as for us, the fear, the unknowing what tomorrow holds, is destabilizing. What had seemed solid now feels precarious—for our ancient ancestors, the people of Israel, fearing a future without the vision and direction of Moses; and for our friends and loved ones in the State of Israel, fearing a future without the protection and stability of a strong and independent court.
In times like these, I often look to our tradition and our calendar to find an anchor. However… we are in a moment of shakiness, of unsteadiness, in tradition and in the cycle of Jewish time, as well.
Yesterday was the ninth day of the month of Av, Tishah B’Av, perhaps the most mournful day on our Hebrew calendar. Yesterday, Jews around the world fasted and read from the Book of Lamentations, sorrowful verses grappling with the tragedies facing the Jewish people.
Why, each year, do we spend a summer day mired in such dark ritual and scripture? On this day in the sixth century BCE, we are taught, Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem fell to the invading Babylonian armies. And in the first century CE, the Second Temple fell to the invading Roman armies. Destruction, exile, expulsion--Tisha B’Av has been associated with tragedy after tragedy as Jewish time has unfurled. “What,” we have asked throughout our history, “has our people done to deserve these catastrophes?” Is God punishing us for some transgression?
As Rabbi [Rebecca] Rosenthal taught last Shabbat, the traditional explanation for these calamities was that the Jewish people had incurred God’s wrath by not treating one another well. We had embraced sinat chinam, baseless hatred, and become a people divided against itself.
This was not what God wanted from us.
When we shift from past to present tense, we recognize the symptoms. We are once again a people enticed by division, this time, along the lines of American or Israeli political parties. It feels like we are once again on the precipice of being torn apart. To many, it even seems like the catastrophic loss of our temples in the ancient Land of Israel, and the erosion of democracy in our beloved modern State of Israel stand in parallel to one another. And it is tempting to meet the moment, once again, with despair.
But Moses’s fruitless pleading with God was not the end of the story. Nor were the siege on our temples.
In both cases, the next day dawned, and a new people of Israel emerged. Our people were beaten and scarred. We were changed, indelibly, permanently, by these tragedies: the loss of Moses and the destruction of the temples. And we still long, in some ways, for the “we” we were before these moments.
But what we became in the aftermath—what we gained—actually outweighs our losses.
After Moses’s pleading, he goes on to accept his fate. Rather than bemoaning his death, he instead reminds the people of Israel of all the lessons God has taught them, of all the strength God has given them, and of all the blessings ahead if they choose to remain God’s people. And we know that after Moses dies, the people will go on to enter and settle our homeland, to grow strong and numerous, and to enjoy centuries of unity.
After the first temple fell, we became a diasporic people. We learned to live in the world and with the world, and not just as a people apart, defined by one patch of land. We learned to value community in a new way, as a far-flung people with shared roots and a God in common. We learned to be a Jewish nation, not limited by borders.
After the second temple was destroyed, we became a people able to bring God with us wherever we were. We learned to gather and study and worship in all of our homes in the world, to release God from a single building in Jerusalem, and bring God into each of our hearts. We learned to be a Jewish people, with a shared history, journey, and destiny.
How will the people of Israel and the State of Israel emerge from the ruins of the reasonableness law and the other judicial reforms that have been promised? What will we become in the aftermath of this upheaval, of this division, of the growing sinat chinam (baseless hatred) we are experiencing?
I see glimmers of hope already, in the ongoing protests in Israel and around the world. As we were reminded by Michael Koplow, who spoke to our community yesterday, “These are not monolithic protests…. This is not just one sector of Israelis. …Every time you see civil society enact democracy in this way, it’s a very hopeful sign.”
The majority of Israelis oppose this reasonableness law and the other proposals in the judicial reform package. And they refuse to be ignored. Democracy is alive and well when a population insists that its voice be heard, even over the pontification of its leaders. This wide-ranging coalition of people in the streets are listening to each other, and it is only a matter of time until their leaders listen to them as well.
Beyond Israel’s borders, we all have a role to play. But we can’t become bogged down in sinat chinam (baseless hatred). Instead, we must open ourselves up to the possibility of what we might become, together, when tomorrow dawns.
Va-et’chanan—on this day, I plead that when tomorrow does come, that we learn to become a people that listens to one another, that values our differences, that protects our minority opinions, that engages in protest and emerges stronger because of it.
I plead that none of us remains rigid and unyielding, because that will crack us apart, but rather that we allow ourselves to be changed and shaped by one another, that we bend and flex and remain intact.
When tomorrow dawns, may we be a new and stronger people of Israel, with a strong, Jewish, and democratic State of Israel in our midst.
Kein yehi ratzon, may it be God’s will.