Psalm 107

He gathered in from the lands, from east and west, from the north and from the south. (107:3)

The Psalmist’s vision is literally true. Israel is populated by Jews from Europe and Russia in the North, Egypt, Ethiopia, and South Africa in the South, Iran, Iraq, Yemin, and Syria in the East, and North and South America in the West. Jews from those countries and more, many of whom experienced terrible persecution in their country of origin, were redeemed by God as they were able to resettle in the land promised to the earliest followers of YHWH, Adonai, God of Israel.

For me, Israel has functioned as the base station of a cordless phone. As the battery dies, the phone loses the ability to make a connection. Periodically, it needs to return to the base to recharge and renew its connection.

I had a spark of a sense of God’s presence growing up in my synagogue and going to Jewish camps, especially Ramah. But that spark grew into a flame the first time I visited Israel with the Ramah Seminar, which kindled the desire to return again to study at the Hebrew University for my junior year. I’ve been back every 5-7 years ever since, frequently enough to continue stoking the fire, not as frequently as I would ideally like.

Israel is the place where my language of prayer and study is also the language in which I order from a menu and listen to my friends’ children talk about their lives in a babble of language from which I recognize every fifth word. Israel is the place where the fundamental Jewish rituals of my life are embedded into the fabric of everyday life: Shabbat is the weekend, kosher meat is the norm sold in stores, specialty butcher shops exists to sell pork and other treif! Israel is the place where Jews can support the government, oppose the government, and ignore the government without being called self-hating Jews. In other words, while outside of Israel the Jewish commitment of Jews who vote against “Jewish interests” is questioned, within Israel, Jews can disagree with their neighbors politics and not be accused of betraying Judaism.

Israel is sometimes called “the beginning of the flowering of redemption.” When Jews can disagree about anything and everything but still doven and have Shabbat dinner together, that might be the definition of complete redemption. Israel isn’t there yet and certainly diaspora communities are not either, but we keep working on it. And that’s the Jewish way.

Psalm 87

Indeed, it shall be said of Zion, “Every person was born there.” (87:5)

For every person to be born in Zion either means that the world population shrinks dramatically or the boundaries of Zion, literally or metaphorically, expand to encompass the whole world. Let’s think of a messianic world in which we are citizens of planet earth whose capital is Zion.

If we lived in a truly messianic world in which there were no national conflicts and no meaningful borders between nations, in which people of all religions treated each other with absolute love and respect — wouldn’t that feel as if the messianic City of Jerusalem had expanded  to encompass the entire world?  The whole world would be Israel, a city/land of God.

In this messianic world any Jew living anywhere in the world could claim our birthright – Israeli citizenship and an Israeli passport, fulfilling the Psalmist’s vision, “Every person was born there.” For a host of reasons, this will have to wait until we are significantly closer to peace and stability in the Middle East, but I have a dream! I dream of an expanded Birthright Israel in which Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return is offered to any Jew on the condition that he or she visit Israel once every 5 years and participate in some kind of Israel service program. How many diaspora Jews would make a commitment to participating in the life and development of the Jewish state in exchange for Israeli citizenship? In my dreams, at least, the number is significant.

Psalm 80

You plucked up a vine from Egypt; You expelled nations and planted it. You cleared a place for it; it took deep root and filled the land. (80:9-10)

The theology of this verse reminds me of the comment on the first verse of Genesis by the medieval French commentator Rashi, in which he explains that the purpose of beginning Torah with creation, rather than with the first mitzvah given to Israel in Exodus 12, is to remind us that the world belongs to God. In this Psalm, God is a gardener and the world is God’s garden.

I know some transplanted species do very well in a new location, taking over the land and crowding out the native species. Typically, we call those kinds of plants “invasive.” This does not seem to be the image that the Psalmist is drawing. Rather, he is describing a Gardener who very carefully prepares the soil by clearing away the plants currently growing in the new location as if they were weeds. Only when the area is empty and ready for a new planting does the gardener take the vine that had been growing in Egypt and transplant it to its new location.

The vine takes to the new location as its native habitat, flourishing, sending its roots deep into the ground and spreading out to fill the land. The vine doesn’t own the land any more than the plants who preceded it owned the land. The vine lives off the land, depending on the owner of the land to sustain it. This Gardener is not typical of those who take care of small farms and landscapes. This Gardener not only fertilizes the soil and trims the vine, but also controls the water and the sunshine that nourish the vine.

Although the Psalmist speaks as if the vine is the only thing growing, we know that a healthy ecosystem supports a variety of plants. To conclude on a messianic note: just as the vine shares the land with a different kinds of fruit trees, vegetables, grains and and flowering plants, so too may the people Israel someday share the land in peace with a diversity of other peoples.

Psalm 57

Awake, O my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will wake the dawn. (57:9)

Would that music had the power to awaken the light! There is deep darkness in our world as the calendar turns around to another anniversary of September 11, the number of murdered by the dictator of Syria dwarfs the number murdered in the attack on the World Trade Center and the two other hijacked planes.

Would that the harp and lyre had the power to open up the human soul to the power of love and acceptance! Instead, what we see is a growing movement of radical Islamic oppression. The world would live in darkness when the freedom to worship God according to one’s own spiritual path is denied, when one is murdered for worshipping Jesus or denying Muhammad.

Music has the power to bring people together, singing in harmony, but the music of much of the Middle East these days is not an inviting melody.

An old proverb of uncertain origin goes, it’s always darkest before the dawn. A version of this first appeared in print in 1640 in a travelogue by the English theologian and historian Thomas Fuller entitled, A Pisgah-Sight Of Palestine And The Confines Thereof.

How sad that he wrote this when traveling through Israel; and that more than 370 years later, the dark clouds still loom over much of the region.

Remarks at the Grand Rapids Solidarity for Israel Rally

Friends, this rally is about peace and I am standing before you to offer a prayer for peace. Peace has a price. Peace means compromise. Peace means that neither side gets all that they want, but they agree to live and let live, to prosper and marry and raise children side by side in safety.

Peace means that the State of Israel is here to stay; otherwise, there is no peace, only devastation.

For over 3000 years, Judaism and Israel have been intertwined. For 2000 years, the heart of the Jewish community yearned to be a free people in its own land once again. For 66 years, we have lived in our homeland and created a proud, moral State that has fulfilled Isaiah’s vision of being an or goyim, “A light among the nations.”

I am here today to say to the anti-Israel protestors, chanting “End the occupation,” chanting “Free Palestine,” that we can talk, peace is within our grasp, as long as you accept reality — Israel exists, and we will not apologize for the fact that Israel is here to stay!

I am here today to say to the terrorist Hamas regime who says that the missiles will stop when the occupation – of 1948 – is over, I say that is not peace. That is a threat against my family, and my family does not take threats lightly.

Here’s the simple recipe for peace, in the words of Prime Minister Netanyahu: “The truth is that if Israel were to put down its arms there would be no more Israel. If the Arabs were to put down their arms there would be no more war.”

I dream of a day when Lo Yisa Goy el Goy Herev, lo Yil’medu od Milhama, nation will not take up arms against nation, when they will no long experience war; when they will no longer teach hatred to their children, when they will no longer send their children strapped with explosives to murder themselves and others, when they will no longer dig tunnels, marvels of engineering, in order to kidnap and kill our citizens. On that day, there will be peace, and for this we pray:

May we see the day when war and bloodshed cease,
When a great peace will embrace the whole world.
Then nation will not threaten nation,
And [humanity] will not again know war.
For all who live on earth shall realize
We have not come into being to hate or to destroy.
We have come into being
To praise, to labor, and to love.
Compassionate God, bless the leaders of all nations
With the power of compassion.
Fulfill the promise conveyed in Scripture:
I will bring peace to the Land,
And you shall lie down, and no one shall terrify you.
I will rid the Land of vicious beasts
And it shall not be ravaged by war.
Let love and justice flow like a mighty stream.
Let peace fill the earth as the waters fill the sea.
And let us say: Amen.