Having the Courage of One’s Convictions

Thank you for joining us for another morning of spiritual prayer. It is so great to see multiple generations of families together, both new members and those who have been here for decades, joining together as a spiritual community. I want to be sure that everyone knows that you always have a place here at Bet Shira Congregation. Please be frequent visitors and please give me your input as to what you’d like to see at Bet Shira.

 

Sound of the Shofar-by Lucille Frenkel

Call of the past and out of the past,

You rouse us to face to the future.

Sound of the ram’s horn, its meaning precise,

Reminds us to recall the sacrifice

Of a past which begot us so we may beget

Finer future.[1]

 

What do David Ben-Gurion, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon all have in common besides each being an early leader of the State of Israel? Certainly not their politics. According to Dennis Ross and David Makovsky, the answer is that each of them had to make high-stakes decisions, with the existence of the State of Israel being on the line. This is higher stakes than I or the majority of people will ever have to make in their lives.

One of those high-stakes decisions was made by Israel’s founding Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion, born David Gruen in Poland, had a clear agenda: he believed “stateless Jews were defenseless Jews”[2] and sought with an unparalleled urgency to bring about a Jewish state. He had foreseen that the rise of Hitler meant immense trouble for his people, and in the aftermath of the Shoah (Holocaust) he fought for a Jewish State at all costs. Ben-Gurion founded the Haganah, Israel’s defense agency which at first worked in collaboration with the British. Ben-Gurion had supported the Peel Commission of 1936, a small Jewish state of islands surrounded by a Palestinian state. He figured a small state was better than no state. Yet Ben-Gurion knew when too much compromise was deadly, breaking with the British in 1939 following the White Paper phasing out immigration. The first decision Ben-Gurion made after the UN partition plan vote in 1947 was to allow for unrestricted Jewish immigration into Israel.[3] What made Ben-Gurion such a great leader was his “single-minded determination to sustain and grow the Zionist project.”[4]

At times Ben-Gurion came into conflict with other Zionist leaders, one of whom was his rival Menachem Begin. Begin founded the Irgun, at times attacking British soldiers, including the famous bombing of the King David Hotel. He felt the British could not be trusted, moving too slowly to secure a Jewish homeland. Yet Begin’s greatest claim to fame as a leader was not in creating terror but rather in showing restraint. In 1948 a ship called the Altalena with armed supplies for the Irgun was approaching the Tel Aviv shore. Ben-Gurion ordered the Haganah to fire on it, and it sunk. My grandfather, Abraham Frenkel z”l, watched from the Tel Aviv coastline. Begin jumped from the Altalena and then gave an announcement onshore. There was a stillness, as people expected him to order an attack on Ben-Gurion and his Haganah, prompting a civil war. Instead, Begin announced that the Irgun would be disbanded as a separate organization and be under the auspices of Ben-Gurion and the Haganah. Begin did not let his ideology cloud his shared objective with Ben-Gurion of creating  a Jewish state. Similarly, Israel’s first peace deal was created not by a left-wing leader but by Begin, with Anwar Sadat of Egypt. Begin demonstrated that he was not an ideologue and would do whatever the moment required. That’s a decisive leader.

Another example of a leader going against the grain was Ariel Sharon, known as Arik. Sharon was the father of the Settlement movement, promoting homes in Judea and Samaria after 1967. He also ordered the disengagement from Gaza in 2005. The very people Sharon encouraged to move into Gaza were the same people he unilaterally ordered out for what he believed to be the security of Israel. I was in Israel in 2005 and remember seeing the blue (pro-disengagement) ribbons in Tel Aviv and the orange (anti-disengagement) ribbons in Jerusalem. It was quite a trying time for Israel indeed, yet Sharon did what he felt was best in spite of considerable opposition.

Rabin was the same way, able to take risks. Above all else, he wanted peace for Israel. He met with Yasser Arafat after the first Intifada and the two of them along with President Clinton formed the Oslo Accords. He also secured peace with King Abdullah of Jordan. Rabin came from the same background as the others, fighting in the War for Independence in 1948. He knew his agenda, to be a peacemaker to ensure a secure future for Israel, and he fought to make it a reality. The words Shir L’Shalom, a song of peace, were on his lips the evening he was murdered.

What Ross and Makovsky write in their book is a concern that modern leaders of Israel do not have the ability to be as decisive in high-stakes decisions. In writing, they are not speaking specifically about any one leader, not Bibi, Benny, Ayelet or Yair. Rather they are speaking about a modern Israel Prime Minister who is more of a strategic politician than a decisive leader.

In describing leadership let me first say what a leader is not. A leader is not a savior. At my installation at a previous congregation, the cantor sang Zog Shel Kumen in Geulah, the Messiah has come. While I believe he did this tongue-in-cheek, the truth is that congregations often expect their new leaders to be “the answer” for all of the balms of the congregation. All the more so, there’s a power in saying no.  If one always says yes it is meaningless; being able to say no makes one’s yes all the more meaningful.

My mom, Laurie Herman, a long time librarian and Jewish professional in Milwaukee, who I am so happy is here today, said she was concerned about me becoming a rabbi. After all, it’s not a job for a nice Jewish boy. The best way I look at being a rabbi is through the following story told by Ruth Gruber z”l:

According to Chaim Weizmann, one of the juiciest storytellers I have ever met, President Truman, congratulating him on the establishment of the new state, said: “I am the President of a country of 140,000,000 people. And you, Dr. Weizmann, have become the President of a country of a million people.” Dr. Weizmann shook his head. “Ah, you are wrong, sir.  I have become the President of a million presidents.”[5]

As a rabbi, with every congregant as your boss, one must be political and strategic. At the same time, one must be decisive, at times “going against the grain” of what others think. A rabbi needs to recognize that one cannot please all of the people all of the time but rather that s/he can please some of the people all of the time. At the critical moments, when told “Rabbi, if you make this decision I’m leaving and taking 20 families with me” or “Rabbi, if you make this decision you’re fired” the rabbi needs to have the strength of inner being to honor the courage of his/her convictions rather than just going where the wind blows. This is much easier said than done, of course, yet it is what makes a rabbi a leader.

It is my hope and my prayer that the next Prime Minister of Israel, whether Bibi, Benny, or a “dark horse,” will have the courage of his convictions to lead Israel at this most critical time.

I feel most fortunate to be living in a state with two Pro-Israel Senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, as well as Pro-Israel representative Donna Shalala, who I had the privilege of hearing speak last month at our local AIPAC event. As I mentioned at that event, I support AIPAC precisely because it is bipartisan: regardless of one’s political affiliation, or lack thereof, what truly matters is support of Israel. As in the old adage of the Israel on Campus Coalition of Hillel: “Wherever we stand, we stand with Israel.”[6]  My father, Dr. Bruce Herman, taught me to have independent views, for which I am most grateful. Both my parents demonstrated for me the importance of supporting Israel, as did my uncle Dan, who founded Betar Milwaukee, and my Grandpa Abe, a sabra who fought in the War for Independence and was a message boy for the Stern Gang.

There are multiple ways that you can help Bet Shira Congregation stand unified with Israel. One is by supporting Israel Bonds, making a personal investment in the State of Israel. As in the words written by Rabbi Martin Pasternak, National Director of Israel Bonds: “Every dollar of every investment-no matter the sum-is a dollar invested in strengthening the achievement of the dreamers, founders and builders of Israel to create a state, a home, a life and a future for the Jewish people.”[7] I hope that in this season of increased Tzedakah, charitable giving, that you will consider an investment in Israel Bonds.

 Another way you can connect is by visiting Israel, making your own personal connection to the Land of Milk and Honey. Join Bet Shira Congregation in our mission to Israel June 14-25, an experience of a lifetime for the entire family, or join the Jewish Federation, one of the staunchest supports of synagogues as well as of Israel, in its mission June 7-14. These trips are open to all, whether you have been to Israel 50 times or are going for the first time.

A third way for us to all stand together is to continue to educate ourselves about the situation in Israel. Whether you are a member of AIPAC, JStreet, ZOA or another organization, there are numerous programs and resources devoted towards education about Israel’s political situation. We will also be learning about the Masorti movement and the World Zionist Congress elections to be held in fall 2020. I do not care if you are right-wing, left-wing or in the center: what I DO care about is that you care about our community and the worldwide Jewish community. As Elie Wiesel said, “The peril facing mankind today is indifference.”[8] There are numerous speakers about Israel at the JCC and at the many congregations in Miami, as well as a plethora of media sources that you can use to educate yourself about Israel. I was privileged to attend the AIPAC Rabbinic Symposium this August and am excited for Bet Shira’s delegation to the AIPAC Policy Conference this March.

I pray that the coming year will present numerous opportunities for us to come together as one people. Let us not lose sight of the biblical precept that though few in number, we are a strong and mighty nation, prepared to encounter the challenges that face us. May this truly be a year of renewed peoplehood, of being empowered to act together for a better future. AM YISRAEL CHAI! The People of Israel live!

Rabbi Rami Shapiro, founder of Temple Beth Or here in Miami, wrote a poem entitled A Different Kind of a Hineni in hopes that this gives us some additional insight into this important prayer:

Hineni. Here I am.

A little bit nervous, a bit self-conscious.

After all, who am I talking to?

And what have I done?

Am I a sinner in search of grace

Or a saint seeking salvation?

Am I so evil

Or so good

As to warrant this season of introspection?

And yet here it is, and here I am:

This time of change and correction,

This heart of confusion and contrition.

Oh, if I could change!

If I could be so sure of myself

That I no longer had to imagine the slights of others;

To be so loving of myself

That I no longer had to ration my loving of others;

To be so bold with myself

That I no longer had to fear the bravery of other.

Oh, if I could change

There is so much I would change.

Maybe I will, but it scares me so.

Maybe I won’t and that should scare me more.

But it doesn’t.

So let me pray just this:

Let no one be put to shame because of me.

Wouldn’t that make this a wonderful year?

Hineni-Here I am![9]

 

Shana Tova U’metuka, a happy, sweet and healthy new year to all.

 

[1] Lucille Frenkel, A Jewish Adventure (Milwaukee, WI: The Eternity Press, 1983), page 130.

[2] Ross and Makovsky Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny (New York: Public Affairs, 2019), pg. 71.

[3] Ross and Makovsky, pg. 72.

[4] Teveth, Ben-Gurion and the Zionist Project, in Ross and Makovsky, pg. 72.

[5] Ruth Gruber, Israel Without Tears, 1950, pg. 14

[6] Israel on Campus Coalition began in 2002 in response to the Second Intifada

[7] Israel Bonds 5780 High Holiday Guide

[8] Elie Wiesel 1999 White House Speech “The Perils of Indifference”

[9] From The World of the High Holy Days Volume II, edited by Rabbi Jack Riemer, Pages 103-104.

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