August 17, 2019

Shylock Lives!

I want to personally thank Vice President Joe Biden for helping me with this sermon.

Last week, Vice President Biden was talking about soldiers who had just returned home from active duty. He was describing the financial challenges that they face. And then, he started talking about unscrupulous moneylenders who take advantage of them.

He referred to those unscrupulous moneylenders as “Shylocks.”

This did not go over well. Within nanoseconds, the Anti Defamation League called upon Joe Biden to apologize for using that term – which he promptly did.

Joe Biden admitted that he should have known that the term Shylock plays into a vicious anti-Semitic stereotype that has appeared over and over again over the centuries.

Shylock is the Jewish moneylender in Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice. Antonio, the merchant of Venice, asks Shylock for a loan, and Shylock demands a pound of flesh as collateral. In an elaborate courtroom scene, Portia determines that while Shylock could collect his pound of flesh, he could not take a single drop of blood along with it.

Shylock delivered the most famous speech in all of Jewish history.

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same
diseases, heal'd by the same means, warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?

Shakespeare was saying something radical for his time and place. The Jew is not evil. The Jew has the same impulses and the same needs as everyone else.

Let us now move Shylock’s rhetorical questions – from the Jew, to the Jewish state.

It was not a good summer. It started with three Israeli teenagers, kidnapped and killed by terrorists.

And then, in perhaps the most despicable act of contemporary Jewish history, in a savage act of vengeance, a group of Jewish thugs kidnapped and burnt to death a young Palestinian boy, Mohammed Abu Khdeir.

There were hundreds of rockets a day, fired from Gaza. The Iron Dome system intercepted most of them. There were the constant sirens that sent everyone into bomb shelters. Israelis adjusted their daily habits so as to always be within fifteen seconds of a shelter.

Israel hit back at the places in Gaza where the rockets were coming from. Israel demonstrated abnormal caution and care for the citizens of Gaza. Israel tried to prevent civilian deaths whenever and wherever it could. A famous British general actually said that there had never been anything in history quite like it.

And, yes: even still, the human losses in Gaza were terrible. Let there be no Jewish soul too small to include the dead of Gaza within it.

And Israel defended itself and its citizens. Because, as Shylock understood: The weapons that hurt other people – we Jews are not immune to them. If you prick us, we bleed. We are real human beings.

Therefore, what should Israel have done? Not protect its citizens?

Sorry, world. We are not going to let more of our people die – just so that you can feel better about us, and just so that you can say nice things about us. 

The rockets were one thing. But the tunnels were something else.

Hamas created an elaborate underground system of tunnels that went into Israel. You could drive trucks through those tunnels. You could run trains through those tunnels.

Do you know who built those tunnels from Gaza into Israel?

Palestinian children.

Do you know how many Palestinian children died while building the tunnels?

At least 160.

Recall Leonard Cohen’s comment on the Torah portion: “You who build these altars, to sacrifice these children, you must not do that anymore.”

Let that become a memo to Hamas.

Let me tell you what the tunnels were for. Let me tell you about the Rosh Ha Shanah in Israel that could have been.

Hamas had planned to send 200 terrorists at a time through dozens of tunnels that are part of its intricate underground system – today – on Rosh Ha Shanah. They had planned to
kidnap and kill dozens of Israelis – mostly children.

And why? The purpose was not only to pull of the largest mass killing of Jews since the Shoah, and not only to perpetrate the largest single terror attack in the world since 9/11.

They were choosing one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar for a mass atrocity.

That would have totally and permanently destroyed Rosh ha Shanah. It would have utterly demoralized the Jewish people for generations to come.

Let me speak in the tones of this season of repentance and moral introspection.

Israel is not perfect. Israel makes mistakes. In its recent incursion into Gaza, Israel made errors of judgment. That is why Israel has launched an official inquiry into some of what has happened in Gaza.

When we traded in exile for statehood, we left the world of moral purity.

That is why I wish that there were a second Jewish state – located in Scandinavia, or in a suburb of Boston, or California.

In that second Jewish state, there would be no disputed territories.

There would be no checkpoints for Palestinians to traverse. Eighteen and nineteen year old Israeli kids would not have to guard those checkpoints — in full uniform, in one hundred degree heat. They would not have to wonder if that pregnant Palestinian woman is really pregnant – or is she carrying a load of explosives beneath her dress, and is she on her way to a pizzeria, or a coffee shop, or a crowded shopping mall.

In that second Jewish state, there would be no anti-Muslim bigotry.

That second Jewish state would never disappoint anyone. That second Jewish state would require no moral angst, no struggle, no striving for perfection. Because it would already be perfect.

But, guess what: There is no second Jewish state. Israel is the only one we have. With all its dings and dents and imperfections.

That's what the Israeli singer meant when she sang: Ain li eretz acheret. I have no other country.

But it is not only the state of Israel that is under attack.

It is the people of Israel – the Jewish people itself.

  • In England, a rally of 45,000 people, protested against Israel. Not against Israel’s actions in Gaza. Against Israel.
  • In England, at a Sainsbury’s supermarket in central London, protesters outside the store called for a boycott of Israeli-made goods. The manager ordered employees to empty the kosher food section.
  • In Paris, mobs scream “Death to the Jews!” This is exactly what happened 120 years ago at the Dreyfus trial. Herzl heard those screams and he concluded that there was no future for the Jews of Europe. 4000 French Jews have already made aliyah to Israel this year.
  • In a Paris suburb, a mob surrounds a synagogue, preventing its worshipers from leaving.
  • In Lyon, in France, two teenage Muslim girls, ages 15 and 17, were arrested for planning a suicide bomb attack on a synagogue.
  • In Germany, mobs scream: “Hamas — Jews to the gas!”
  • On the Upper East Side of New York, thugs wielding a Palestinian flag attacked a Jewish couple.
  • In Philadelphia, at Temple University, pro-Palestinian activists attacked a Jewish student.
  • In Los Angeles, a group of thugs attacked Elon Gold, an Israeli comedian, and his family.
  • On numerous college campuses, there are calls to institute academic boycotts of Israel.

There are those who say that if only Israel changed its policies, anti-Semitism would disappear.

It is not that people are anti-Semitic because they are anti-Israel.

People are anti-Israel because they are anti-Semitic.

Rosh Ha Shanah comes to us – to teach us that we are not helpless; and we are not hopeless; and we are not hapless.

Each of us is an ambassador for Israel. That does not mean that you have to be a cheerleader. It means that you need to be able to interpret Israel and her situation: to your children; to your grandchildren – and especially to your non-Jewish friends and co-workers and family.

You need to remind them: Israel is not just what they read in the news. Israel is not just the conflict with the Palestinians and with her Arab neighbors. Israel is a multi-cultural democracy. Israel is a leader in the arts, and in science, and in technology, and in medical research.

You might want to mention that the latest medical advances in diagnosing head injuries in football players – is emerging out of Israel. And so much more.

Go beyond Israel. ISIS, or ISIL, or the Islamic State, or whatever it is calling itself this week, is an international Manson Family. It relies on beheadings, and mass rape, and mass crucifixions of Christians.

We dare not see the Islamic State in isolation. It is part of a huge terror network that goes from Boko Haram (remember the Nigerian schoolgirls who were kidnapped? Wonder what happened to them?) to Hamas to Hezbollah. While there are subtle differences in their ideologies, let’s remember what binds them together: they are anti-Semitic; anti-woman; anti-gay; anti-liberal; anti-everything that we believe in and cherish.

Israel is on the front lines of the war against Western civilization.

I am going to conclude by telling you about the latest Rosh Ha Shanah greeting that has become a minor fad in Israel.

This is what people are saying to each other: Shnat dvash. May it be a year of honey.

Now, of course, Rosh Ha Shanah is the time of apples and honey, which symbolize sweetness. And of course, Israel is the land of milk and honey.

But why “a year of honey?”

As you all know, honey comes from bees. Bees sting. Israel has endured too many stings. There should only be honey now.

And second: honey is sticky. Honey is messy. So is life.

So is the quest to be a people that strives for moral perfection.

As Shylock once said: Hath not a Jew eyes?

We Jews do have eyes. We Jews have eyes, and we see the world as it is – and we also see the world as it might be.

In this coming year, may our eyes see only goodness and blessing.