This sermon was delivered at our May 10th Friday Night Shabbat service. You can listen to it on the Contact Chai podcast or watch now on YouTube.

There is a story about a group of rabbis who visit Jerusalem shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple. As they walk among the rubble of the Temple Mount, they see a fox emerge from its ruins. While the other rabbis start weeping, Rabbi Akiva begins to laugh. They ask him, “How can you be laughing right now?” Rabbi Akiva responds, “And why are you weeping?” The rabbis say, “Look around you! This was once the holy epicenter of our people and now foxes have made their home in its ruins.” Rabbi Akiva explains, “But this is the fulfillment of a prophecy told by Uriah: Zion will be plowed like a field, Jerusalem will become rubble, and the Temple Mount an untamed forest.” And if the words of this prophet are true, then the words of the prophet Zechariah must also be true: “There shall yet be elderly sitting in the squares of Jerusalem.”

This is not a posture of naïveté, a deliberate ignorance; his hope comes from confronting the destruction in front of him — and rather than giving in to despair, or choosing cynicism, or adopting a posture of nihilism OR falling back on the kind of faith that assigns reason to everything, that puts a silver lining on loss, or tells us to trust in God’s grand design (all choices other people have made when faced with immense tragedy) — Rabbi Akiva does not make light of their loss. He feels it deeply. And, alongside it, maintains an understanding that what he sees in front of him is not the entire picture. Among the rubble there is life — not just the fox, but Rabbi Akiva and his companions: keepers of our tradition, still alive in the wake of so much death. He could tell only one of these stories: the fox in the ruins or the fact of our resilience. Yet each, whether through overwhelming despair or a dangerous sort of optimism, is incomplete. And so Rabbi Akiva chooses both, adopting a prophetic posture that is between and inclusive of the pathos of Uriah and the dream of Zechariah, to tell a more honest story.

On Sunday evening, our friends and family in the State of Israel (and many Jews in the diaspora) will observe a pair of civic holidays: Yom Ha’Zikaron Le’Halelei Ma’arkhot Yisrael ul’Nifge’ei Pe’ulot Ha’Eivah, or Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Acts of Terrorism, and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, or Independence Day — which commemorates the Israeli Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948.

The transition from Yom Ha’Zikaron to Yom Ha’Atzmaut creates a story that moves us from pain to hope. This was the emotional arc intended by the committee formed under Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1951, which established these days in tandem: to acknowledge that the young soldiers being remembered are, in the words of the poet Natan Alterman, “magash ha’kesef sh’alav l’cha nit’nah m’dinat ha’yehudim — the silver platter on which the Jewish state was given.” At sunset, as one day gives way to the next, we move from the graveyard of history to the promise of the future. Many people who visit Jerusalem walk this journey quite literally: starting at Yad vaShem, the Holocaust museum and memorial, and then hiking the wooded path past memorials for successive wars of independence into the national cemetery of Har Herzl, at whose peak — among the graves of thousands of soldiers – lies the tomb of Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism. And if you stand next to this monument and look east, you see Jerusalem: the old city with its ancient stones that recall the presence of the many peoples who have found this place holy — whether at the Kotel, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or the Dome of the Rock — all obscured by the glittering skyscrapers of a modern Jewish state.

Im tirtzu zeh lo aggadah, Herzl once said. “If you will it, it is no dream.” I can’t help but be moved by the audacity of a bunch of refugees and displaced people — driven out of every place they had called home — declaring that they would stop being the victims of history and create a nation of their own. After six million of their brethren were murdered (a sobering fact that we marked last weekend), to decide that their revenge would not be to go back and fight the Germans, Poles, or Russians — but to build a future for their children on the land walked by their ancestors is an incredible feat of imagination and resilience. Founding the State of Israel was a response to the 614th mitzvah proposed by Emil Fackenheim after the Holocaust: to preserve our inheritance, to safeguard our traditions, to revive our language, to live — am Yisrael hai.

It’s a triumphant story. An inspiring story. A hopeful story. But it is not the entire story.

Because the story of Israel (the state, the land, the people) is not a straight line from oppression to liberation, degradation to dignity, death to life — but a complicated tangle of all of these things happening at once.

Every year the Parents Circle-Families Forum and Combatants for Peace organize a joint memorial for Yom Ha’Zikaron, remembering everyone who has been killed in the decades-long conflict between Israel and Palestine. It will be happening again on Sunday at 12:30 pm, online (information is on our website). It is the largest jointly-organized peace event in the region. It reminds us that this is not simply a war of good guys versus bad guys, but people like you and me killing people like you and me; each one of them a child, a friend, a neighbor — a point in a constellation of relationships dimmed by their absence. Some were killed after taking up arms. Some were killed commuting, or working, or shopping, or praying, or dancing at a club. The point is not to determine whose story of grief is more deserving of compassion, nor to divide the victims of this war between the innocent and the guilty. It is about remembering people, who were once alive and are now dead years or even decades before they should have been.

Earlier this week, we were joined by two members of the Parents Circle-Families Forum: Layla Alshekh, a Palestinian mother whose six-month-old son died after inhaling tear gas deployed by the IDF on her town, and Ofer Lior, an Israeli Jew whose brother was killed by Palestinian militants while patrolling the Jordanian border. Layla explained that the work of their organization: “[Is] not about comparing pain — who is first, who is second; who is right, who is wrong – but about understanding each other.” And it’s not easy, because it requires hearing stories that belie the narratives that they and we have been taught since childhood. These are stories where our good guys are their bad guys – and that’s hard to hear. Because we know our good guys as children, siblings, cousins, friends, and neighbors, people who act from a place of conviction, conscience, and moral necessity. People who are doing their best in an impossible situation. Right? But the same is true for their good guys, too.

Yom Ha’Atzmaut has another name for the other people who call that land home: Dhikra  an-Nakba, or a Remembrance of the Catastrophe — which marks the day when over 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes, becoming refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, and neighboring countries. This is a fact of history. The neighborhoods surrounding Yad vaShem and the national cemetery of Har Herzl were once home to thousands of Palestinians. Some have been repurposed, some have been rebuilt, and some remain abandoned. This does not negate the fact that Jews walking freely down these streets is the realization of a two-thousand-year-old dream. But the forced absence of Palestinians from the same roads is a truth that we cannot look away from. If you go on our website, you’ll see that listening to both narratives has and continues to be our approach at Mishkan: “to recognize that the creation of Israel, while a miracle for the Jewish people, was a nakba or catastrophe for the Palestinian people — the effects of which are still reverberating today.” 

It is not antisemitic, or even anti-Zionist, to acknowledge these competing narratives — because they are part of the same story. This story is neither linear nor simple, but a gordian knot of homecoming and displacement, conflict and coexistence, the way things are, the way things could have been, and the possibility of what might be. And to be clear, complexity is not an excuse for inaction or injustice but reason to, as we take action or pursue justice, listen and learn. A few days ago, Ezra Klein sat down with Israeli journalist Ari Shavit — a controversial figure, best known for his book My Promised Land. In his introduction to their conversation, Klein speaks about Israel as a contradiction that needs to be recognized rather than resolved: one that holds idealism and violence at its heart, that was a miracle for some and tragedy for others, to see the work that went into it — and on the other hand, the dispossession that was required by it. To follow only one thread of this story is at best irresponsible, at worst an act of deliberate misrepresentation. Proposing that Israel was created by necessity to prevent the death of our people, Ari Shavit shared: “We have sinned. We made mistakes. We are in a tragedy. But to totally overlook the justice at the heart of this project and to just see the flaws and the problems, I find that a distortion.”

The rabbis were well aware that the Romans laid waste to the Temple. We mourn the destruction wrought by their hands every year on Tisha b’Av. But the rabbis also point to the ways we, Jews, co-created the series of events that led to that loss. The Talmud asks: “Given that our people were learned in Torah and scrupulous in performing mitzvot, why was the Temple destroyed (i.e. why wasn’t God on our side, since we were doing everything that God has asked us to do)?” The rabbis answer: because of sinat hinam, baseless hatred. Baseless hatred turned us against each other. Baseless hatred tore apart our communities, long before the Romans arrived in Israel. And when they did arrive at our gates with their tools of conquest, baseless hatred rendered our people unable to stand against them. And just in case you think this is an act of rabbinic imagination and not a historical fact, the decades leading up to the Roman conquest of Judea were rife with infighting among the ruling elite and a deepening philosophical divide between the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes, all different factions within the Jewish community. Acknowledging this context does not negate the horrors that our ancestors experienced. Nor does it absolve the Romans of their wrongdoing. But it does help us tell a more honest story about what happened — one that contains important lessons about how we might move forward.

For months my social media has been a constant game of one-upmanship, as people who identify as “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestine” attempt to find increasingly egregious examples of moral failing by those on the other side. The campus protests are a microcosm of this phenomenon, people latching on to chants or signs or statements that might be an indication that the entire project of their ideological opponents can and should be dismissed. I’m thinking about the pro-Palestine student from Columbia University who was recorded saying “Zionists don’t deserve to live.” Or chants to “globalize the intifada,” that don’t take into account or seem to care about the incredible loss of life that accompanied these uprisings. Or the pro-Israel counter-protestors who went to UCLA to throw firecrackers and intentionally provoke physical violence against the encampment. I’m sure we all have our own examples: yes, those that give us a sense of righteous superiority over the people we don’t agree with, but more importantly those that are a shande fur die goyim, the instances where we have felt a sense of shame when people on “our side” have written or said or done something that we know is wrong.

Regardless of whether you have been protesting Israel’s actions in this war or have advocated for its right to self defense or find yourself not prepared to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with either group (and Jews of conscience and conviction find themselves in each of these places): it is difficult to acknowledge the ways you or your people have fallen short of shared standards of decency and truth. And at this moment in particular, it can feel like giving ground to the “other side” to name the ways that “our side” has failed. Like we’re handing them a win. Because we know we are good people and believe our cause is righteous, so to admit that someone who shares our vision has done something wrong — this will discredit us, and so we should either ignore what they did or minimize it or justify it or keep it close to our chests.

An article by Mo Husseini, a Palestinian American, recently came across my inbox. It’s called “50 Completely True Things.” In it, he lists, well, fifty completely true things. I want to share the first twenty-three:

Some Jews are shitty and awful people. Some Muslims are shitty and awful people. Some Christians are shitty and awful people. Some Arabs are shitty and awful people. Some Americans are shitty and awful people. Some Israelis are shitty and awful people. Some Palestinians are shitty and awful people. Not all Jews are Israelis. Not all Israelis are Jews. Not all Jews are white. Not all Israelis are white. Not all Muslims are Arabs. Not all Arabs are Muslims. Not all Palestinians are Muslim. Not all Arabs are Palestinian. Not all Palestinians are Hamas. Texans are not Arizonans. Germans are not Dutch. Palestinians are not Jordanians. Egyptians are not Palestinians. Where you are born does not actually determine anything about you. Your passport is not your political beliefs. Your government is not your morality.

And the list continues.

Not recognizing this complexity, not breaking out of the binary of one side or the other side, holds us back from telling the more uncomfortable but more honest story — one that acknowledges the righteous nature of both Israeli and Palestinian causes while being clear about the ways individuals and organizations that purport to represent them have said or done harmful things. Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR recently shared: “When you’re fed a diet of extremism you think the only answer is eliminationist — for my people to have justice, your people must be wiped out. But it’s not true. We have been fed falsehood.” A narrow narrative dangerously limits our ability to imagine the way forward; narrowness begets narrowness. Standing among the ruins of the Temple, taking in the devastation around them, the rabbis could only see the fox as a symbol of death. But Rabbi Akiva, holding the story of their survival, their creativity, their resilience, alongside the reminder of all they had lost, was able to see the fox as a promise of renewed life as well.

A more honest story prepares us for the future we are trying to create. Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, recently wrote that if we truly believe in peaceful and dignified co-existence (which, in my experience, most people do) it is imperative that we have a different kind of conversation, not one where we fight over whose story is closer to the truth — but “one predicated on a shared understanding of history, compassion for the narratives of both Jews and Palestinians, and a recognition that the only sane and moral way forward is a shared future.” A shared future is built on a shared history. This will include moments we have shown up as our best and most hopeful selves — and this will include moments where we have fallen short of our moral calling, whether on purpose or through negligence.

Yochanan Muffs, a professor of religion at the Jewish Theological Seminary, once wrote that the prophet stands in the breach between God and the people. In this space, they have two roles: on behalf of God, to make the people aware of the ways they have failed and on behalf of the people, to defend the ways that they have risen to the occasion. In moments of moral crisis, our tradition compels us to adopt a prophetic posture — especially toward the people and places we care about most.

There is a quote attributed to a number of patriots: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” To articulate critique is not inherently anti-Israel. Rabbi Lizzi and I have continued to join groups of rabbis who care deeply about the future of Israel and Palestine, demanding their leadership and the leadership of our own country pursue a complete ceasefire, the return of hostages, and a recommitment to diplomatic solutions for peace. We join hundreds of thousands of Israelis who are calling for the same thing, who understand that the survival of their country is tied to the wellbeing of everyone who calls that land home. To listen to the ways that liberation and dignity for some has led to the oppression and degradation of others does not mean we must give up on the project of Israel. Yom Ha’Zikaron, Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Dhikra an-Nakba — these days on the calendar are our opportunities to tell a more honest story, and in doing so create a renewed vision of what the future might look like: a nation, in the words of its Declaration of Independence, that is for the benefit of all its inhabitants; based on the precepts of liberty, justice, and peace taught by the prophets; upholding the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed, or sex; guaranteeing full freedom of conscience, worship, education, and culture; safeguarding the sanctity and inviolability of the shrines and holy places of all religions; and dedicated to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations. We haven’t lived up to these ideals yet. They are aspirational words, as every founding document is — a statement of faith in humanity that we can and need to do better. Telling our story shows how far we’ve come, and reminds us that we have what it takes to make dreams into reality. For the past century, this was the creation of a homeland. This next century, the transformation of that homeland into a home for our people and a home for all who dwell there in dignity and peace. Im tirtzu zeh lo aggadah — if we will it, it is no dream.