It was March 9th, 2002. I had spent the year up until that point living in Israel for my first year of rabbinical school. We had climbed the mountains and walked the beaches. We had met with artists and politicians and teachers. We had hung out with shop keepers, and had endless Shabbat dinners. We were learning a land which rises and falls with stories of ancient foundations and aspirational future times. It’s a land my class learned by walking it, breathing it in. And it’s a land we learned by the places we couldn’t go, by the nearly weekly phone call from our teachers after Shabbat asking if we were okay after the next attack. My year in Israel was during the Second Intifada and it was a hard year, a heart-breaking year, a heart-filling year. It was a year of falling in love with Israel, being disappointed in Israel, being devastated by loss, inspired by beauty, and learning that our fate, my fate, would always be intertwined with Israel’s fate and future. And once your story is bound up with a place, what that place does and whether it is a moral place will always be your responsibility. I learned that during my year in Israel, too.
And then on March 9th, 2002, Moment Café, a popular little restaurant we liked to go to sometimes, was attacked and the results were just awful. Our year in Israel was suspended the next day and each of us had to call home and tell our families our plans. So I called my parents and I told them how I had fallen in love with Israel that year. How I felt accountable to my teachers and my rabbinate and my people to stay through the end of the year. I promised I wouldn’t hang out in cafes anymore—but I couldn’t leave. And they listened to my whole explanation and my mom said: “we totally understand. Now tell me again why you’re not coming home?” And we cried together, but they understood. I was drawn to this place in ways that I could only begin to describe.
And in this Torah portion, parshat Bo, we find our people drawn to this place, beginning a journey toward this land that weaves its way into the central narrative of our people. We witness in this parsha the dramatic moment in our ancient myth in which our slavery ends and our communal journey toward some kind of a Promised Land begins. With a deep breath and one step, we leave Mitzrayim behind us and point our bodies to the east.
This is not a historical text that guarantees us a land, or a political proof text that says that only we hold Israel dear. No. This is so much more than that. This is a text that imbeds in us the archetypal vision of and the hunger for the Israel of our dreams. Before we leave, the land is described to us as flowing with milk and honey. Verdant. Abundant in produce. Safe.
Knowing that, imagine what this people might have been thinking as they took their first step in the direction of Israel. “Let us arrive at a land that is the opposite of all we are leaving – the fear and the scarcity and the being controlled that we have known. A land that has enough for everyone, that is safe for everyone, that does not oppress us or anyone. We cannot wait to taste its milk and honey.” The land that we aspire to is imprinted on us with our very first step.
And this journey we start here in parshat Bo, it doesn’t go on for just 40 years in the wilderness. It continues on for the next thousands of years, as we keep on marching our way toward that promise. We’re not there yet. That’s no surprise to anyone.
Sure we are physically in Israel. But we have not yet arrived at the Israel of our dreams. The Israel that is a light unto the nations, that is a beacon of abundance for all, living by an unimpeachable moral law. The Israel of today—the very one that I fell in love with and feel accountable to—is flawed. Its leadership can act in ways that are corrupt and cruel, and perpetuate an occupation that is immoral. And as it is in many countries including our own, there is not yet economic or human equality.
But just because your home isn’t yet the land that you hope it will become, does not mean we stop loving that home or making our way toward it. And loving a home so much means it is worth working for to make it that place that we set out for in parshat Bo. I believe that we love not by abandoning that vision, but by doing all we know how to make it a reality.
I’ve been here about seven months and I haven’t said a lot to you about Israel. It’s not an easy topic to talk about. It causes rifts in Jewish communities like nothing else does. I’m sure I’ve made some of you angry tonight, or worried that I love Israel too much or not enough—it’s not my intention.
So this is what I want to say. I’m not a political pundit, I’m not a historian, I’m not a lobbyist. I’m a rabbi. So my job is to hold open the space for our community to be in conversation about Israel. To help us feel a part of Israel and to give us ways to relate to it, grapple with it, connect to it. I’ve painted a picture for you tonight so you know where I am, but I respect where you are, too, and I want to learn that over time. There’s room for us to challenge each other and grow together. Always.
And there’s another reason that I rarely talk about Israel. It often feels like there’s nothing we can do to help it become that Israel we journey toward in Parshat Bo. But right this second—that is not true. There is something we can do. As folks living in the Diaspora, for we who are over 18, if you self-define as a Jew, you have a vote. And I honor the truth that that is not everyone here—and that’s alright.
But, right now, and over the next month and a half, the World Zionist Congress is holding a vote that happens every five years. And Jews all over the world get to have an impact on the kind of Israel we want. I’ll be voting for the Reform Movement slate, which holds a set of values that our own Jewish Movement has been working toward for decades.
This election is a chance to have our voice heard in Israel. It’s a powerful way to articulate so many things that our community cares about—pluralism, peace, and economic justice. The Reform Movement platform advocates for religious equality in Israel, making sure that people of all genders can live, pray, and work as equals; combatting racism, discrimination and hatred, making sure that religious and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ folks, and all members of Israeli society are treated equally under the law; security in the region; and a peace that is based on two states for two people with safety and dignity for all. Maybe a taste of the Israel we first set out for.
This vote directs critical funds toward things that matter to us, for our votes result in significant resource allocation and determine leadership positions in important decision making bodies. This vote matters. And it’s a way of pointing our caravan in the right direction.
We’ll send you everything you need to know to vote early this coming week—it takes less than three minutes. I hope you’ll be part of this moment.
The poet philosopher Yehuda HaLevi wrote in the 12th century: libi b’mizrach, my heart is in the east, and I am in the uttermost west. That is the story of Parshat Bo and it is our story today. We are perpetually moving toward the Israel of our dreams. And we are lucky that right now, we have a chance to move it just a little bit closer to that vision that compelled us to leave Mitzrayim and not just yearn for it, but to toil and build for this land of milk and honey.
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