Sermon at the AIPAC Shabbaton
I was honored to give the sermon at the at the AIPAC shabbaton last week and share with you my remarks, which are especially appropriate prior to Pesah.
I am sure that by now most of you have heard about the biggest deal ever in Israel’s booming hi-tech industry. A few years ago the popular GPS program developed in Israel - Waze was bought by Google for $1.3 billion. Just two weeks ago in an even larger deal, Intel bought an Israeli company, Mobileye, a global leader in the development of computer mapping for advanced driver assistance and autonomous driving for $15 billion. Intel hopes its purchase will position it as a leader in the field of autonomous vehicles. With all the hoopla and excitement over this deal and self-driving vehicles many people do not realize that it really is not all that new or that big a deal.
What most people do not know is that Israel had already developed a self-driving car a number of years ago. The car was able to understand and respond to verbal commands. If you wanted the car to go to the right, all you had to do was say “Yemina”, and it would turn right. To go to the left, you merely said, “smola”.
Since some of the engineers who worked on the car were religious Jews, they programmed it so that in order to activate the car you said, “Baruch HaShem” which of course means, “thank God.” And it would go forward. And to stop it, you said, the same thing, only in Yiddish, “Gottza Danken.”
Everything was going pretty well on the initial test run until the driver got to a treacherous cliff. As the car was going downhill it began to speed out of control and the driver panicked. He could not remember the Yiddish command to get the car to stop. He yelled out every Yiddish word he knew, and even a few curse words in Yiddish. Nothing worked.
Finally, as the car was about to veer over a cliff, he remembered what to say, and just in the nick of time, shouted, “Gotza Danken.” Sure enough, the car stopped right at the edge of the cliff. Feeling thankful and relieved, he sat back and prayerfully said, “Baruch HaShem.”
And that was the last we ever heard of self-driving Israeli vehicle technology -- until now.
I assume you probably felt proud, when you heard about the deal, as we all should and do whenever something like this comes out of Israel showcasing the contribution Israel and our people are making to technology and safer cars. Because at the end of the day, it really is about Tikun Olam: the role Israel and the Jewish people play in making the world a better place. The pride we feel extends beyond the advances in the realms of science, technology, medicine, the arts, humanitarian aid and other fields where Israel is the leader. It even extends now to the world of sports, and more specifically, of all things, to baseball.
Although ranked in 41st place in the World Baseball classic, (I think it was out of 42 teams, or maybe it was out of 40), Israel’s baseball team beat the Netherlands, 3rd ranked South Korea, 4th ranked Taiwan and perennial powerhouse Cuba.
Following the surprising, unpredictable and unanticipated success of Israel’s baseball team in the World Baseball Classic some people commented that the last time Israel beat that many countries in less than a week was in the Six Day War in 1967.
You’ve gotta love a team who shleps their mascot, the “Mentsch on a Bench”, with them wherever they go; who paused to read the megillah in the dugout on Purim; and whose players removed their blue and white baseball caps with their emblem: a Star of David with an “I” in the middle for Israel, and wore blue yarmulkes whenever HaTikvah, Israel’s national anthem was played. The team cheer was “Give me an O – O. Give me a Y – Y. What does it spell? Oy!”
The odds against Israel winning the tournament were not very good. Bookmakers placed them as a 200 – 1 longshot. No wonder. Unlike the teams they were competing against, not a single member of Team Israel was currently on a major league roster. The team consisted of career minor leaguers and retired former major league ball players. All Americans, each had just enough Jewish heritage and connection to qualify to play for Team Israel.
What was it about an Israeli team of non-Israelis that was so endearing and inspiring that it, like the Mobileye deal evoked such a strong reaction and generated such an outpouring of Jewish pride among Jews in America?
Elie Klein, an associate partner at a pr and marketing firm in Israel summed it up. “While baseball fans around the globe have taken notice of Team Israel due to their surprising athletic prowess, Jews around the world — many of whom have never watched a single inning of baseball are drawn to Team Israel out of deep Jewish pride. Not because they are Israelis, but because they aren’t. They are largely American Jews who have decided to wear uniforms emblazoned with the Jewish star and don kippot during Hatikvah, to identify as Jews in a public way.” Klein said, “Israel’s participation in the World Baseball Classic is about so much more than baseball.”
As a result of their experience, these guys, only two of whom actually hold Israeli passports, most of whom until a trip in January had never been to Israel, and the majority of whom had not even been practicing Jews -- now have not just an affinity for Israel, but have rediscovered, or in many cases discovered their pride in being Jewish, and in the process have evoked pride among us as well. Israel can have that affect on Jews.
To qualify to play for a team one did not need to be a citizen of the country one was playing for, but was required to be able to qualify for citizenship in the country they were playing for. Since they all had some connection through a Jewish parent, they were eligible for Israeli citizenship under the right of return, and therefore qualified to play for Israel’s team.
In many respects, the rules of the World Baseball Classic reminded us of Herzl’s dream and affirmed the Zionist vision of Israel as a center of the Jewish people, which is why Klein is right. The phenomena is about much more than baseball. The fact that these guys were eligible to play for the Jewish homeland, and then were cheered on by Jews in America shows it’s about Israel and about its relationship with the Jews of the Diaspora, and what it means to be a Jew.
This motley crew took on some of the powerhouses and best teams in baseball and somehow against all odds, beat some tough teams. It is a paradigm of Jewish history – a story of perseverance, of optimism and determination, a story of David against Goliath, of the Maccabees against the Greeks. It is the story of the Jewish people. It is our story.
Just three weeks ago we celebrated the holiday of Purim, and in two weeks, we will celebrate the holiday of Passover. (Another great thing about being Jewish by the way – you are never too far away from a Jewish holiday.)
On Purim, we celebrate the defeat of the archetype arch anti-Semite, Haman who wanted to annihilate the Jews of Persia. The holiday is especially joyous and festive because the outcome was the exact opposite of what the wicked Haman wanted to accomplish. The holiday celebrates the irony that he was the one hung on the very gallows he built to exterminate the Jews. We do not merely celebrate our being saved, but are commanded to remember what it is that he, as well as the Amalekites of that time, and throughout history wanted to do to us. The Shabbat that precedes Purim is called Shabbat Zachor, when we are implored to remember that the world can be a cruel place.
The mood of the holiday a week away is very different. On Passover we are also commanded to remember – to remember that we were once slaves. The holiday is called zman herutenu, the time of our freedom. We seek to reenact the experience of slavery and our being liberated by reliving our ordeal, which is why we have such stringent rules about what is permitted and what is forbidden.
A story is told about a king who reversed his father’s order forcing the Jews to convert. The town’s rabbi was excited and told his wife. “Bracheleh,” he exclaimed, “I have great news. The new king has said we don’t have to be Christian anymore. We can go back to being Jews.” His wife let out a sigh, expressing disappointment. The husband was surprised and puzzled, and asked her what was wrong. “This was the moment we have been dreaming of and waiting for,” he told his wife. She said, “I know. I know. I can’t be happier, but couldn’t he at least have waited a few more days, until after Pesah to allow us to be Jews again?!”
We are commanded to rigorously observe the rituals of Pesah so we remember that we were once strangers in the land of Egypt. We recall our humble origins so we will have compassion and empathy towards others who experience oppression and alienation.
On both holidays the command is the same. Zachor: Remember. On one we remember what the Amalekites did to us, and on one we remember that we were once slaves in the land of Egypt. An article Yossi Klein Halevi wrote a few years ago pointed out the contrast and tension caused by the two different types of remembering.
The message of the command to remember on Passover is a universalistic one, reminding us of our history so we will have compassion and not be brutal towards others. The message of the command to remember on Purim, however is to remember how the tribe of Amalek attacked us without provocation while we were wandering in the desert. The essence of the Zachor of Purim is - do not be naïve, for there are those who are out to annihilate you.
In other words, on Purim we are commanded to remember what others have done to us, whereas on Passover we are commanded to remember what we should do for others. Which imperative, which zachor, command to remember speaks to you?
In reality, both of these conflicting notions are essential parts of who and what we are, and of how we should respond to the world around us. It reflects the challenge facing us and our brothers and sisters in Israel: the challenge of living in a hostile environment and the need to be ever vigilant against threats which are real, while striving to maintain humanity, decency, morality and compassion, even towards those who are enemies.
We need both holidays and the symbolism captured by both kinds of remembrance. Jewish history demands that we heed both of these voices, conflicting as they may be – reflecting the universalistic and the particularistic message of Judaism. It is when we recall both aspects of our history that we have a sense of our identity and purpose, and of what we should aspire to be. So let us back on our past and remember our history and tribulations, and be inspired by the beauty of the nobility of our heritage and its message to learn from our experience our obligation to have compassion towards others.
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt
March 25, 2017